Thailand’s King Bhumibol: Man for a Crisis

BANGKOK, Thailand ~ Thailand’s revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who has reigned for 60 years – more than any living monarch – has outlasted 20 prime ministers, 15 constitutions and at least as many coups.

After the country’s military staged a bloodless coup late on Tuesday, seizing power from unpopular Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, some in the streets of Bangkok seemed unfazed, sure the king would again see them through crisis.

“It’s just the news,” said one woman, a chicken vendor in the capital. “Tomorrow everything will be back to normal. Everything is OK because we have a king.”

In a sign of the king’s influence, army chief General Sonthi Boonyaratglin met with the monarch immediately after declaring that he had seized power from Thaksin.

As they tried reassure the Thai public their intentions were honorable, the military leaders behind the coup broadcast pictures of the king on television.

King Bhumibol has few legal powers but wields enormous influence over his people, who revere him with an almost god-like devotion that confounds outsiders more accustomed to the tabloid treatment of European royals.

In a culture where religion and royalty are intertwined, the 78-year-old has carefully nurtured his role as caretaker of his people and helped Thailand weather six decades of political and social upheaval.

“In times of crisis, when we reach an impasse or stalemate, we look up to the king to help us find a way out,” Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a professor of political science at Chuloalongkorn University, told AFP on the occasion of his 60th anniversary on the throne in June.

An accomplished yachtsman, painter, author and musician, the king was born on December 5, 1927, in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

His father, Prince Mahidol, was studying medicine at Harvard, and as the younger brother in the family, no one ever expected him to take the throne.

His father died while he was still a toddler, and his mother kept the family in the United States and Europe for most of his youth, hoping to protect them from the political upheaval at home that saw the Kingdom of Siam transformed into a constitutional monarchy called Thailand.

But when his elder brother died on the throne of a gunshot wound to the head in circumstances never fully explained, Bhumidol was proclaimed king the same day – June 9, 1946.

He went to Switzerland to study and was not formally crowned until May 1950, when he received the official royal name Rama the Ninth. His full name means “Strength of the Land – Incomparable Power.”

His picture hangs in every taxi, office and shop. Before every film, audiences stand in cinemas to pay him homage while pictures of him flash across the screen.

People stop to pay respect to the king – even on subway platforms during rush hour – when the national anthem is played twice a day on radio and television.

Despite carving out a position of strict neutrality in politics, he has occasionally intervened to spectacular effect to end domestic upheaval.

In 1973, after riots broke out at a Bangkok university, he asked a prime minister and his henchman to leave the country in a bid to halt a rising tide of social disorder. They obeyed.

In 1992, he called then-prime minister General Suchinda Kraprayoon to his palace and humiliated him on television for ordering a bloody military crackdown on demonstrations against his government.

The prime minister resigned.

Most recently, on April 25, the king publicly castigated Supreme Court judges and ordered them to break a political deadlock caused by months of street protests and inconclusive elections.

They nullified the elections and ordered new polls.

He has also won the hearts of the Thai people with his persistent advocacy for the ancient Buddhist values of self-sufficiency and moderation in the face of a rapidly growing consumer culture.

He sponsors thousands of development projects around the country, many based on his own research for water control.

“Thirty years ago, Bangkok had a big flood, and he came in a small boat to see the people,” 50-year-old Chommapat Sodsai, who works for an environmental group, recalled.

“He didn’t say anything (about leaving the palace); he just came to see the damage. That’s our king.”

By Griffin Shea

Agence France-Presse

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