October 13, 2016
Note: The late His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej was the First Among Equals of Asia’s monarchs, who was loved and respected by his people. His passing today will be mourned by the Thais.
Dr. Kamsiah Haider and I wish to express our sincere condolences to the members of the bereaved Royal Family, the Government and the People of Thailand including our friends and associates on the passing of their revered and admired monarch.–Din Merican
The revered, saintly and loved His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand has died
His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand, who has died aged 88, was the world’s longest serving constitutional monarch and played a unique role at the centre of national life.
The only Buddhist monarch in the world, King Bhumibol (pronounced Poomipon) was unexpectedly elevated to the throne when just 18 years old on the mysterious death by shooting of his brother Ananda in 1946. At the time, the institution of monarchy in Thailand was at a low ebb. Absolute monarchy had been abolished following a military coup two decades previously, and for the better part of those years no king had been in residence and republican sentiments were strong.
The young Bhumibol had spent most of his life abroad and at the time of his accession was studying at Lausanne University. The new king, a shy, bespectacled, almost withdrawn young man, took the dynastic name Rama IX and became the ninth sovereign of the Chakri dynasty.
Despite these inauspicious beginnings, over the following decades King Bhumibol turned Thailand’s new constitutional monarchy into a resounding success. During years of political turmoil and rapid change which saw numerous coups or attempted coups and more than 20 prime ministers, he was seen as a consistent, selfless presence and symbol of national unity. For most of his reign he was credited with being a moderating influence on corrupt politicians, scheming bureaucrats and ambitious generals; it was only recently that some suspected him of interfering in the political process, to the extent of tacitly endorsing a coup in 2006.
In his first address to the Thai Parliament after his coronation in 1950, the King urged its members to do everything in their power to prevent the entry into Thailand of communism from neighbouring countries. Deeply conservative by nature and with a strong belief in stability and order, he was convinced that improving the lot of the peasants would be the best protection against the spread of communism, and thereafter he devoted himself to that end.
He developed an extraordinary rapport with ordinary Thais, and would spend most of every year traveling between a series of palaces around the country. From these he would lead 40-strong convoys of assorted Jeeps and Land-Rovers down dusty roads deep into the countryside meeting local people, visiting rural projects or entertaining local dignitaries.
Foreign ambassadors to Bangkok would often be dragged from the capital’s cocktail party circuit to spend days bumping around the outback inspecting drainage schemes. Always the King radiated a curious touching innocence.
There seemed no end to the good works in which King Bhumibol was involved. They ranged from lettuce farms and cottage industries such as silk or cotton weaving to dams, schools, clinics and even rain generation plants. The King himself led development programmes in the poorest parts of the country and funded many of them from his own private funds. Successful projects would be passed on to the government for further development.
His excursions to the further reaches of his kingdom sometimes involved risk. In 1977, during a visit to a southern province, a bomb exploded near the royal entourage, but the King was unharmed. Whenever he traveled near the Laotian or Cambodian borders, a helicopter gunship would circle overhead and large numbers of troops would form a ring of protection on the ground.
The King of Thailand has little direct power under the constitution, but on several occasions Bhumibol used his considerable personal and moral authority to resolve political crises that threatened national stability and to try to inch Thailand nearer to stable democracy.
In 1992, for example, when a bloody cycle of pro-democracy protest and military repression seemed about to spiral out of control, the King summoned General Suchina Kraprayoon, the leader of the junta, and his principal civilian opponent for a late night audience.
In a nationally televised humiliation, the two men crawled on their knees to the feet of King Bhumibol for a royal reprimand: “You have not followed the people,” the King scolded quietly. “You talk democracy but you don’t do anything about it.” In one telling moment, the King defused the confrontation, paved the way for fresh elections and destroyed the two men’s careers.
King Bhumibol took great care to re-create the mystique that had surrounded Thai kings of old and revived ceremonies that had not been used since the time of his grandfather, Rama V. In addition to the title of King, he was revered by ordinary Thais as Strength of the Land, Incomparable Power, Brother of the Moon, Half-Brother of the Son, and Possessor of the Twenty-Four Golden Umbrellas.
He demanded, and usually received, absolute respect from his subjects. Every Thai house contained a prominent photograph of the bespectacled monarch, but it was considered impolite for a commoner’s feet to point directly at the picture. Those meeting the King were expected to do so with heads bowed, on their knees.
But it was not just his good works and popularity that boosted the royal image. That was also protected by a draconian lèse-majesté law which made it an offence punishable by between three and 15 years in jail to “defame, insult or threaten” any member of the royal family. The law was strictly enforced, and as recently as January 2009 an Australian writer was jailed for insulting the monarchy. “The moment you take away the mystique,” King Bhumibol explained, “the moment you expose the institution to the daily scrutiny of the modern media, you’ve had it.”
Credit: EPA/Royal Household Bureau
Prince Somdet Phra Chao Yu Hua Bhumibol Adulayej was born on December 5 1927 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the son of Prince Mahidol of Songkla, half-brother and heir of the last absolute monarch of Thailand, King Prajadhipok (Rama VII) and the younger son of King Chulachomklao (Rama V, reigned 1868-1910).
The Chakri dynasty into which he was born dates back to 1782. Prince Bhumibol’s great-grandfather King Mongkut (King Chomklao, reigned 1851-1868) was splendidly, if inaccurately, brought to life in Anna and the King of Siam and, later, The King and I.
Prince Bhumibol’s father, Prince Mahidol, had married a Siamese commoner and studied to be a doctor. At the time of the birth of Prince Bhumibol, he was studying public health and medicine at Harvard and his wife was studying nursing and economics at Simmons College close by.
Prince Bhumibol was the youngest of the family’s three children, having an elder brother and sister. At the time of his birth, he was several steps removed from succession to the Thai throne, and his elder brother, Prince Ananda, had precedence.
Prince Mahidol died in 1928, when his son was a year old, and the family returned to Thailand where, as a young boy, Prince Bhumibol briefly attended Mater Dei Primary School. But in 1933, following a military coup, King Prajadhipok ordered the family to move to Lausanne, Switzerland. There the Prince attended the Ecole Miremont and the Ecole Nouvelle de la Suisse Romande, Chailly sur Lausanne. Later he enrolled at the Gymnase de Lausanne.
While the family were living in Switzerland, political changes in Thailand started the chain of events that would eventually elevate the young Prince Bhumibol to the throne.
In 1932, following the coup, King Prajadhipok agreed a new constitution that would replace Thailand’s absolute monarchy with a constitutional one, and in 1935 he abdicated the throne in favour of his nephew, Prince Ananda, then 10 years old. The two young princes visited Thailand briefly in 1938-39.
During the greater part of the Second World War, Thailand was controlled by a pro-Japanese puppet government, so that Princes Ananda and Bhumibol did not return there until late 1945, when Prince Ananda went to Bangkok for his coronation.
Before the ceremony could be performed, however, on the morning of June 9 1946 Prince Ananda was found in bed with a bullet in his skull and a revolver by his side. Despite a seven-year murder trial and the execution of three junior palace staff, there has never been a satisfactory explanation of why he died, and the death was officially ruled an accident. A book which suggested that Ananda killed himself because he had been forbidden to marry a Swiss girlfriend was banned in Thailand.
As King Ananda’s brother, Prince Bhumibol was named his successor by Act of Parliament. Two months later, after the legislature had appointed a two-man regency council to rule pending his coming of age, he returned to Switzerland to complete his education.
The young King had planned to become an architect and had enrolled at the University of Lausanne to study Engineering. Following his brother’s death, however, he changed his course to Law and Political Science.
When King Bhumibol attained his majority in December 1946, the Siamese government allocated several hundred thousand dollars for the ceremonial cremation of the remains of King Ananda, a necessary preliminary to the coronation of his successor who was required by religious custom to light the funeral pyre. Unsettled conditions in 1947 following a coup d’état forced a postponement, and court astrologers settled on March 2 1949 as the most auspicious date.
But in October 1948, King Bhumibol was seriously injured in a motor accident in Lausanne which left him blind in one eye and paralysed half his face. Both cremation and coronation had to be postponed once more.
By the time of his coronation, the King had married Princess Mom Rachawong Sirikit Kitiyakara, a great-granddaughter of a former king and thus a distant cousin. In the 1960s she would be described as one of the 10 most beautiful women in the world.
King Bhumipol had first met Princess Sirikit in Paris, where her father was serving as ambassador. She was 15 years old and training to be a concert pianist. While in hospital recovering from the motor accident, King Bhumibol asked to see her and they soon became engaged.
Their wedding, on April 28 1950, was described by The New York Times as “the shortest, simplest royal wedding ever held in the land of gilded elephants and white umbrellas”. The ceremony was performed by the King’s ageing grandmother, Queen Sawang Vadhana.
A week later, on May 5 1950, the formal coronation rites took place in the Baisal Daksin Throne Hall in the Grand Palace. It was the first coronation ceremony of a Thai sovereign to rule under the system of constitutional monarchy.
The royal couple spent their honeymoon at Hua Hin beach in southern Thailand before they returned to Switzerland, where the King completed his studies. They returned to Thailand in 1951.
In 1956 King Bhumibol followed Thailand’s spiritual tradition of entering the Buddhist monkhood of Sangkha for 15 days to practice meditation. He was ordained by the Supreme Patriarch on October 22 at the Royal Chapel of the Emerald Buddha in the Grand Palace.
King Bhumibol remained sensitive to the way in which Thailand is perceived by the outside world. As well as making numerous state visits, he often employed his powers of clemency to secure the release of westerners held in the country’s jails.
He always liked to keep abreast of the latest developments in science and culture. He was an accomplished painter and photographer, and was the first member of the Thai royal family to be granted a patent for an invention. The registered patent is for the Chai Pattana Aerator Model RX 2, an apparatus for water treatment which can be seen operating in many polluted waterways in Thailand.
King Bhumibol was also a writer and musician. He translated several works of literature into Thai. He also composed a number of pop songs, including HM Blues and a little number called Oh I Say! One of his compositions, a beguine entitled Blue Night (with lyrics by the royal chamberlain) was incorporated in the 1950 Broadway revue Peep Show.
His Majesty King Bhumibol played jazz with Benny Goodman and his band
As King, Bhumibol would serenade the population every Friday night on the saxophone, performing with a jazz group in the studios of the royal radio station. He would also become the first Asian composer to be honoured by being made a member of the Viennese Institute of Music and Arts.
The King had been a keen sportsman, fond of skiing, tennis and diving. A skilled sailor, he once sailed a dinghy single-handed across the dangerous Gulf of Thailand; in 1967 he won a gold medal in dinghy sailing for Thailand at the fourth South-East Asia Peninsula Games.
Although the King continued to be revered by most Thais, the palace had recently come in for some unprecedented, if discreet, criticism. There were allegations that the royal advisers interfered in politics, specifically that they played a part in inspiring the bloodless military coup of 2006 that ousted the democratically elected government of Thaksin Shinawatra, who had been prime minister for five years. In late 2008 both of Bangkok’s airports were closed by anti-government protesters, and in April 2009 100,000 demonstrators demanded the resignation of the King’s chief adviser, General Prem Tinsulanonda, whom they accused of masterminding the 2006 coup – which some believed that the King had privately endorsed. Although implicit rather than explicit criticism of the monarchy, this represented a significant change in the tenor of political debate.
King Bhumibol and Queen Sirikit had one son and three daughters who, according to official sources, were all “deeply involved in activities to better the lot of the Thai people and are themselves loved and respected”.
The truth, suppressed in Thailand, was rather different. As a student in America, the King’s eldest daughter, Princess Ubol Ratana, fell in love with an American fellow student and settled in America as plain Mrs Jensen. Her photograph never appears in public in Thailand.
His son, Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn (pic above), was widely regarded as a playboy, and rumours about his dissipated lifestyle were legion. After divorcing his first wife, claiming that she spent too much time playing table tennis, he married a commoner by whom he already had teenage children. That marriage too ended when his second wife walked out to live with a retired air marshal in London.
In 1996, on the day his father celebrated 50 years on the throne, the Crown Prince pinned a proclamation on the walls of the Palace accusing his wife of adultery.
The Thai constitution was amended in the 1970s to allow a woman to succeed to the throne, and there were said to be many in Thailand who would have liked to have seen the crown pass to the King’s second daughter, Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn. In recent years, however, the Crown Prince’s standing has improved as he assumed more of his father’s ceremonial duties.
In October 2007, the king suffered the symptoms of a minor stroke; the following year he was unable to make his traditional annual birthday speech. Rumours around his health persisted over the following years, sometimes affecting the Thai financial markets.
He is survived by Queen Sirikit and their four children. He is succeeded to the throne by HRH Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn.
His Majesty King Bhumbol Adulyadej of Thailand, born December 5 1927, died October 13 2016.