It’s been a little more than a week since King Rama IX, Bhumibol Adulyadej died. His passing is a tremendous event in Thailand, and as such the next year has been declared a year of mourning for the Land of Smiles. Many people who haven’t spent an extended amount of time in Thailand, and even some who have, don’t understand what the King meant to the Thai people or are confused about what significance he had to them. The story of the Thai monarchy is a difficult one, however, understanding that history can provide greater context for the reasoning of the masses of Thai people donning black.
First, some historic context is necessary to understand the institution of the monarchy in Thailand and how that impacted the relationship that Bhumibol had with his subject.
The Royal Family Tree
During the reign of King Rama V, Chulalongkorn (Bhumibol’s grandfather) from 1868 to 1910, the states and land surrounding what was then known as Siam were being annexed and colonized by the French (present-day Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam) and the British (present-day Myanmar [Burma], Malaysia).
Chulalongkorn made a number of deals with the colonizing countries that prevented Siam from being colonized itself and introduced the king to Western administration and military styles. With that introduction, he began a long series of reforms in Thailand and was a supporter of democracy, but did not believe that the time was right for Siam. After his death, he was succeeded by his son, Variravudh.
Variravudh did not have a son, and so upon his death, the crown passed to his eldest “true” brother (sharing the same mother), Prajadhipok. Because of this somewhat unusual line of succession and because Prajadhipok believed it was unlikely that he was ever ascend to the throne, a number of problems came to a head during his reign.
The single most historic event during Prajadhipok’s reign is the 1932 coup, which ultimately led to the ending of the absolute monarchy in Thailand and brought about democracy in Siam. After some conflicts with the new government, particularly Prajadhipok’s belief that power should belong to all the people and not an individual or a party, the king abdicated the throne. Having no children, he was succeeded by his 9-year-old nephew Ananda Mahidol, once again putting someone on the throne who had no expectation of ever being there.
King Bhumibol’s Rise to the Throne
Ananda had spent much of his life in Europe, and in 1945 he returned to Thailand (the name was changed from Siam to Thailand in 1939) to take over for the regency and fulfill his duties as king. However, merely six months later he was found shot dead in his bed. His death is still considered a mystery.
These are the series of events that brought Ananda’s brother, Bhumibol, to the throne: an extended line of unexpected men ascending to the throne in unconventional ways. The recent history of the crown resulted in a diminished sense of respect for the monarchy and a lack of ability for the monarch to be involved in any way with the politics of the country. This uneasiness around a seemingly impotent institution is what Bhumibol inherited upon his coronation.
After his brother’s death, Bhumibol switched his major to study political science with the intent to become a qualified ruler. However, the early years of his reign were marked by a military government that left him a position of being barely more than a ceremonial figure. With some political alliances formed, Bhumibol was able to install a military dictatorship that then allowed the monarchy to regain the prestige that had been lost in the years intervening between him and Chulalongkorn.
The Making of a Legend
Old royal traditions, such as crawling in front of royalty, the king going by boat up the Chao Phraya river to present robes to monks at various temples and the royal ploughing ceremony were reinstated. Bhumibol knowing that he was unable to involve himself in politics set about focusing his efforts on the development of his country, with a specific focus on the needs of the poorest people. In order to assess these needs, Bhumibol and his wife, Queen Sirikit, travelled throughout the country meeting with commoners, listening to their plights, surveying what was the reality of the rural areas of the country.
Royal funds were used to create new infrastructure to provide for the food and economic needs of the people. Dams were built, soil restoration projects were implemented, water infrastructure was built and rain seeding machines were invented. Sirikit focused her efforts on reviving the traditional handicrafts of the Thai people, particularly for the economic empowerment of women. She would search for old pieces of cloth that used the traditional patterns and would ask local weavers to recreate them for her.
It was through this very deliberate reviving of old traditions and a genuine care for the people of his country that Bhumibol gained such favor among his subjects. His portrait hangs in nearly every home and office, is stationed at numerous intersections throughout the country and is carried in parades and ceremonies. He inspired this love and appreciation not because he was king and that was expected, but because he was truly invested in the well-being of the people of Thailand.
Thai Reverence for the King
It’s not a coincidence that his birthday was celebrated as Fathers’ Day; he was considered by all Thais to be their father. Their mourning is as deep as it is because it is as if they have lost their own father, and surely that is a sentiment that can be shared and understood by many.
For a perspective from a Thai, I highly recommend the essay “They Said We Were Brainwashed” by Kalyakorn. If you’d like to learn more about King Bhumibol and his reign, you can read “The Revolutionary King” by William Stevenson (which was written with the king’s blessing) or “The King Never Smiles” by Paul Handley. However, both books are banned in Thailand because of the strict lèse-majesté laws.
If you are traveling to Thailand in the next year, I would encourage you to wear black and white or drab colors out of respect for the Thai people. In your conversations with Thais, express sympathy for their loss. They will appreciate it. Also, know that many of the holidays and celebrations may be cancelled or extremely subdued. If you are going with express purpose of going to one of the many wonderful festivals, I would suggest rescheduling your trip.