looks After the recent death of King Bhumibol, the much-loved king of Thailand, mourners have been heading to the Grand Palace to pay their respects.
King Bhumibol, (pronounced Poomipon) was the world’s longest-serving constitutional monarch after coming to the throne aged just 18. He was unexpectedly elevated to the throne after the sudden death of his brother Ananda Mahidol, the reigning king. It was suspected that Ananda was murdered, made to look like suicide, but there was never an answer as to who killed him. After his brothers death, Bhumibol stayed in Switzerland for four years to complete his studies, returning in 1950 when he was officially crowned king.
At the time of Bhumibol’s elevation to the throne, the institution of monarchy in Thailand was at a low. Absolute monarchy was abolished two decades beforehand after a military coup, and for most of those years there had been no king in residence.
When Bhumibol was younger, he spent a lot of his time abroad, and studied at Lausanne University. After he became king he switched his studies to law and political science, and it was during this point in his life that he met his wife, Rajawongese Sirikit.
In his first speech to the Thai Parliament in 1950, the king urged them to do everything they could to prevent the entry of communism into Thailand from neighbouring countries. He was convinced that improving the lives of the peasants would be the best way to deter communism, and so he dedicated much of his life to that. Partly because of this, he developed a great relationship with the ordinary Thai people. He travelled the country every year, and would often meet local people and visit rural projects.
Although the King of Thailand has little direct power under the constitution, Bhumibol used his personal and moral authority on several occasions to resolve political crises. He was constantly trying to push Thailand further towards stable democracy.
In 1992, there was a cycle of pro-democracy protests and military repression that appeared to be going out of control. The King summoned General Suchina Kraprayoon, the leader of the junta, and his main civilian opponent, for a late night audience. On national television, the two men were on their knees receiving a reprimand from the king himself. He told them that they had ‘not followed the people’. In one moment, the king destroyed both their careers and paved the way for fresh elections. This is just one example of the ways Bhumibol found to deploy what power and authority he had. This intervention eventually led to a general election that resulted in a civilian government.
Bhumibol was often praised as a unifying force in tumultuous Thailand, managed to address the needs of both rural and urban populations and moderated any conflict between the country’s political parties.
King Bhumibol was also known as the ‘Development King’, as he dedicated much of his reign to royal projects that developed infrastructure at the face of bringing food and basic necessities to his people. His visits to impoverished communities brought over 3000-plus projects to his people since 1952. In this way he managed to create jobs for the poor and bettered some of Thai society.
In recent years there has, however, been some discreet criticism of the Thai monarchy and palace. There were rumours that the royal advisers had interfered too much in politics, specifically citing that they had played a part in instigating the bloodless military coup of 2006 that ousted the government of Thaksin Shinawatra. Similarly, in late 2008, both of Bangkok’s airports were closed by anti-government protesters, and in 2009 there were 100,000 protesters demanding the resignation of the King’s chief advisor General Prem Tinsulanonda.
Across Thailand, the role of the King is still generally revered greatly. Known as a stabilising force, a loving father figure to his people, and a divine figure, Bhumibol himself will be greatly missed. He was seen as a ‘consistent, selfless presence and symbol of national unity‘, and the countrywide mourning expected to last for the next year, is no less than they believe fitting for such a beloved king.