It’s hard to give a fair account of Thailand’s King Bhumibol. For a start, a slip of the pen could earn you 15 years of communal showers.
More importantly, the depth of Thais’ reverence for their King can be tough for more cynical cultures to grasp.
While a constitutional monarch rather than a ruler, King Bhumibol is Thailand’s most cherished national symbol and a key embodiment of its Buddhist values. The King’s theories of a ‘sufficiency economy’ have also won new converts in the recent downturn.
Thailand’s devotion is based on gratitude as much as spiritual belief. Since 1946, when the world’s longest-serving monarch came to the throne, Southeast Asia has – to put it mildly – been through a lot.
Thailand’s neighbours like Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia and Burma have all experienced some very dark years indeed. Yet terrible things rarely crossed Thailand’s border – and many Thais would give their King the main credit for that.
King Bhumibol’s achievement is especially remarkable in that he inherited a purely ceremonial role, heavily pruned in the coup that abolished absolute monarchy in 1932. Initially, the King also had to exercise his role during the dictatorship of the formidable Pibun Songkhram.
But patience and concern for his people gradually brought King Bhumibol far closer to the centre of political life.
In 1992, for instance, King Bhumibol intervened decisively to restore Thailand’s democratic system.
As bloodshed intensified between General Suchinda Kraprayoon’s regime and pro-democracy demonstrators, the King held a televised audience between the general and his leading opponent that brought the country back from the brink.
The King is also known as an accomplished jazz saxophonist. He has competed in international sailing competitions and has even designed several boats. His book about his dog Thong Daeng was a runaway bestseller and the King even holds a patent for a waste water aerator.
Yet, while Thais take an interest in King Bhumibol’s personal life, they regard him as far more than an ordinary person. Foreigners in Thailand should also take care to show appropriate respect for the King.
We wish His Majesty King a happy birthday and a long life.