King marks 60th anniversary
June 9, 2006 - King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand, the world's longest-serving head of state, marks the 60th anniversary of his accession. Royalty and heads of state from 30 nations are due to attend two days of celebrations from June 12, which will include firework displays, banquets, and a procession of 52 royal barges crewed by over 2,000 oarsmen.
King Bhumibol of Thailand has something for all sides in the modern debate about the merits of a monarchy. While rare political interventions by the world’s longest-serving head of state have helped to preserve democracy in his country, the adoration he enjoys among his people means that his power probably does exceed its constitutional limits.
On June 9, King Bhumibol celebrates the 60th anniversary of his accession. Few Thais can remember life without him and fewer still recall his predecessor. Revered as a deity, he has been called the “living Buddha”. So assured is his place in the public affections that on his 78th birthday last year he overturned a law making it illegal to criticise him.
Not long afterwards King Bhumibol stepped in to halt the crisis surrounding the victory of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in snap elections on April 2. Opposition parties and the public had demanded the resignation of Shinawatra after his family sold off more than $1.8 billion in shares without paying tax. It fell to the king to calm the public mood.
He summoned senior judges to his palace and urged them to sort out a political stalemate he referred to as “a mess”, and called for new polls. Although it was just the third significant intervention in a reign spanning more than half a century, his action showed both the extent of the ageing king’s influence, and the limitations of Thai democracy. It also raised questions about what comes next since his act is indeed a hard one to follow.
Born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on December 5, 1927, Prince Bhumibol Adulyadej lived briefly in Thailand before attending schools in Switzerland. He was studying at Lausanne University when his older brother King Ananda Mahidol died in mysterious circumstances on June 9, 1946. Prince Bhumibol acceded to the throne the same day, but was not crowned until May 5, 1950, after he had completed his studies in law and politics.
Throughout his reign the monarchy’s importance in national life has varied depending on the political situation of the day. It was not until the military dictatorship of Sarit Dhanarajata in the 1960s that King Bhumibol began to play a more public role, winning the fierce backing of his subjects that has accompanied his forays into the political fray.
In 1973 the king demanded an end to a military regime that generated huge pro-democracy protests in which thousands died. After a coup usurped the new government, the royal family closed ranks with the government and prompted a reshuffle of Thailand’s power brokers. It would not be the last time that the King played a key role in upholding democracy. In 1992 his intervention led to general elections amid fears of a return to military dictatorship.
To many Thais, their king is a benevolent figure invested with a quasi-religious power. This was evident in 2003, when Thais demonstrated in Phom Penh, Cambodia, to protest against the desecration of their monarch’s image in street protests there. Again, it was King Bhumibol who calmed down the protesters and prevented an escalation of the crisis.
Despite the relaxation of the law against criticism of him, few Thais would contemplate voicing anything other than the deepest respect for King Bhumibol. Many Thai families keep portraits of the king at home, and his birthday is celebrated as a public holiday. Even so, some commentators have questioned his egalitarian reputation, and his ties with business.
But the efforts of the king on behalf of the rural poor are beyond question. He regularly tours remote areas and has pioneered several development projects. He recently became the first monarch to receive a lifetime award from the UN Development Programme.
An accomplished jazz pianist and photographer, King Bhumibol has been married to Queen Sirikit for 56 years and the couple has four children. Along with so many other Thais, the family recently experienced tragedy when a grandson was drowned in the Indian Ocean tsunami disaster of December 2004.
Bhumibol’s son Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn is expected to succeed the king in due course, but whether he will ever replace him in Thai hearts and minds must remain open to question.
Graphic News Standards