Thailand’s King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the world’s longest-reigning monarch and one of its wealthiest, has died, ending a 70-year rule and creating new uncertainty over the future of a country with a turbulent political past.
The much-loved Bhumibol was 88 when he died in Bangkok, surrounded by family, some of whom who had raced back to the capital this week as his condition worsened.
Some Thais spent recent days wearing pink, a colour royal astrologers have associated with the king’s well-being, and signing get-well books.
Some travelled from more than 1,000 kilometres away, local newspapers reported, a sign of the national esteem commanded by a regent who ruled so long few can remember the country without him. On Thursday afternoon, as rumours of his death spread, people gathered together in Bangkok, waving flags and chanting, “long live the king!”
With his death, “what really passes is not him or even the monarchy, it’s like an entire mentality and almost a worldview” of what it means to be Thailand, said David Streckfuss, an independent academic and author.
“What’s frightening for many Thais is not merely the passing of the king and an age — but for those people, they simply can’t conceive of a Thailand that’s not like” the idealized version put forth by the palace, which has endured in a country never fully colonized by western powers.
The king suffered from Parkinson’s and had in the past decade endured extended periods of hospitalization. He had barely been seen in public over the past year. The palace said he had suffered infections, heart surgery and, more recently, an “unstable condition” that left him in need of a ventilator.
Bhumibol’s death is expected to launch a lengthy period of mourning that could, in its early days, include the closure of bars and cancellation of entertainment events, a shift that could temporarily impact tourists to the country.
Observers also warn that the military junta currently ruling Thailand could crack down to prevent any conduct or speech deemed disrespectful of the king as the country urges an atmosphere of grief.
Thai stocks and the baht tumbled this week, a reflection of fear among investors over the country’s prospects without the king. With the military in control, however, unrest is not expected to break out.
But without the long-lived face of the monarch whose image adorns household interiors and billboards alike, Thailand faces searching questions of identity. “Who has the right to govern here? Is it the military and coups and forced constitutions? Or does it come from elections and democracy?” Mr. Streckfuss said.
Complicating matters is the expected successor. U.S. diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks described Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, 64, as a philandering playboy disliked and distrusted by other members of the Thai elite.
He seems unlikely to equal the public love devoted to his father.
Born “Baby Songkla” in Cambridge, Mass., in 1927, Bhumibol was educated in Switzerland. He ascended to the throne in 1946 when his brother died of a gunshot, suddenly making him regent of a country whose language he, at the time, did not speak perfectly.
The 70 years of his reign were marked by political instability in Thailand, a constitutional democracy riven by frequent military coups, destructive protests and occasional bloodshed.
But Bhumibol himself became a photo-snapping, saxophone-playing object of deep affection, a charismatic leader revered as a national “father” for championing the cause of the underprivileged, offering help in times of disaster and benignly ruling over the “land of smiles.”
The bespectacled king has been a “symbol of unity that has tied Thailand together,” said Kriengsak Chareonwongsak, an academic and former politician. He is “revered and respected for what has been done over his long reign.”
But the image of a beatific king has been questioned by critics, who call Bhumibol an interventionist monarch whose maintenance of sovereign power stunted the development of democracy.
“His political activeness has often fomented conflict and cleaved deep fissures among his people,” wrote Paul Handley in The King Never Smiles, an unauthorized biography whose publication was strongly protested by Thai officials. The book is banned in Thailand, and in 2011 a Thai court sentenced an American man to two-and-a-half years in prison for translating several chapters.
The image of the Thai monarchy is protected by the world’s most harsh and actively prosecuted lèse majesté laws.
Mr. Handley calls Bhumibol a leader who “assimilated the idea that his position, and he himself, had accumulated matchless wisdom and insight into the ways of man and the cosmos,” making him a solitary figure “best equipped to direct his people and kingdom.”
His life’s work was to revive “the prestige of the palace as the unifying sacred core around which his country revolved,” wrote Andrew MacGregor Marshall, author of A Kingdom in Crisis.
Others have suggested the king was merely the figurehead over a network of influential palace advisers and royalists. Whatever the case, the palace amassed great wealth under him. In 2010, Forbes ranked Bhumibol the world’s richest royal, with assets under the Crown Property Bureau of $30-billion (U.S.). More recent estimates exceed $40-billion.
In securing his position, Bhumibol tacitly or directly partnered with the generals who enacted Thailand’s numerous coups, his critics said. The country’s periods of military rule were plagued by corrupt governance that “exacerbated the social problems they were expected to solve,” Mr. Handley wrote.
The turbulence of the past 10 years, in particular, has marred Bhumibol’s image among some Thais, particularly in northern stretches of the country where pockets of secessionism have arisen in the anger over military crackdowns on political protests.
In May 2010, the military opened fire on protesters. More than 80 civilians died, some shot at a temple, and civil unrest caused billions of dollars in damage.
A new round of protests in 2014 resulted in another military coup, and the army has remained in control since. An interim constitution gives the military “absolute authority without any accountability, and they have shown themselves very willing to use that authority,” said Sam Zarifi, the Asia-Pacific regional director for the International Commission of Jurists. Critics have been silenced and jailed.
Among critics in Thailand, Bhumibol’s legacy has become one of “either a very weak king who was used by various political and military factions, or a very deluded man who helped orchestrate some of this,” said one observer, who spoke on condition of anonymity since the country jails those who impugn the monarchy. The king’s image as peacemaker, won in 1992 when he arbitrated an end to violent protests, has been corroded, the observer said.
Still, affection for the king is real, and widely felt in a nation that credits the palace with modernizing Thailand into a manufacturing hub and global tourism destination that is now among south-east Asia’s wealthiest.
“There’s no doubt that the country has witnessed tremendous development, and he is exceptionally beloved,” said Mr. Zarifi.
“The Thailand of even 20 years ago is very different from the country today.”Report Typo/Error