Working in Thailand a few years ago, I was constantly struck by the way Thai people glorify their king.
Before a film starts, the audience stands as the national anthem plays and photos of King Bhumibol Adulyadej drift by the screen. If a Thai drops a coin, he or she will immediately pick it up; coins have the king’s image and it would be disrespectful to leave it lay. The Thai language has an entire vocabulary reserved for talking to the king.
From doctors, to the restaurant workers, to prostitutes, everyone I met held a reverence that could only be compared to the worship of a god. Such adulation seemed eerie, if not sinister.
One day, sitting with a group of Thai friends, I incredulously asked “What’s so great about the king?”
My friends were only a little offended, but told me many stories illustrating how the king loves his people and works for the destitute in the country. Their responses seemed honest and genuine.
As time went on, I continued to follow news about Bhumibol. Often he would be spotted in a far flung town in the north taking pictures and talking with locals as though they were his equal. It was reported he would keep them from kneeling and insist they speak without the archaic and difficult honorary language.
Everyone I asked said they would die for their king including the most learned and worldly among my acquaintances: university professors, doctors, and those who had studied abroad.
When Bhumibol became king 60 years ago, he was an 18-year-old studying in Paris. With no power in what was then a military dictatorship, he was relegated to ceremonial status, but he cleverly used this status to build programs for the poorest of his subjects, particularly farmers and laborers.
A military takeover in 1991, however, changed all that. A battle between General Suchinda Krapravoon, a coup leader, and a pro-democracy movement lead by Major General Chamlong Srimuang, escalated into violent nation-wide demonstrations.
Up to this point, the king had never publicly intervened, but he summoned both Suchinda and Chamlong to his palace where he chastised them on national television. The nation watched as the two men dropped to their knees, bowed prostrate in front of Bhumibol per royal protocol, and silently received their admonishment.
I saw the footage years later in a documentary, but the visuals were still immensely powerful: The two highly influential and commanding men appeared pathetic in the face of the glaring king who only sought peace for his people.
Suchinda resigned and elections were held shortly afterward. It was the last army takeover in a country that had become synonymous with military coups. Since then, the country had been ruled by a democratic government with credit, ironically, going to the sympathetic monarch.
Earlier this year, things changed again.
I often visited Bangkok over the last several months as hundreds of thousands of protestors clogged key shopping districts demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Shinatra Thaksin who had come to be seen as grossly corrupt. Thaksin refused to step down and the opposition asked for the king to intervene. But, the king refused, saying that Thailand was a democracy and the different parties had to work it out between themselves.
Then, last month, a military junta by General Sondhi Goonyaratglin’s answered the question by circling Thaksin’s office with tanks while he was away in New York. Sondhi asserted he took up arms for the king, but he never claimed he did it at Bhumibol’s bequest. That Bhumibol blessed his actions last week is far from admission that he was complicit before the fact.
There is little doubt the king disapproved of Thaksin’s proclivities, but he wouldn’t have had to ask the military to remove him. He could have simply asked. Thaksin couldn’t have politically survived after refusing a monarchial order to vacate his office. Alternatively, the king could have summoned him to the palace as he did with Suchinda 15 years ago. Thaksin, too, would have found himself prostrate and silent as the king denounced him in front of the country.
Following the coup, blessing Sohndi’s peaceful takeover – not a single shot was fired – was necessary to keep stability. Otherwise, we would be looking at a country amidst a secession crisis much like the one that led to the deaths of innocent protestors in 1991.
The king may not have any real power allocated by the law, but he is the most powerful person in the country. With part of his power derived from the fact he seldom exercises it in public, he can be seen as an aged guru watching from his divine perch above the earthly fray. Bhumibol can be content that he didn’t need to intervene and no one was killed.