The King of Thailand
The World’s Longest Reigning Monarch
Text & Photography by Eric Pasquier
Bhumibol Adulyadej ascended Thailand’s throne in June 1946 at the tender age of 18.
Sixty years, 20 prime ministers, 16 constitutions and 17 coups later the 80-year-old is still on the throne and is now the world’s longest reigning monarch.
He remains popular, as demonstrated by the recent gathering of 500 monks praying for the aged king’s successful recovery from a hernia operation – the last in a string of ailments over the last years.
With the king now on the mend, ERIC PASQUIER charts the life and times of the royal the Thai people love to love.
Thailand’s King Bhumibol Adulyadej the Great, the world’s longest-serving monarch, was never destined to reign but the death of his elder brother, King Anada Mahidol in June 1946 was to change the course of his life.
He was born in December 1927, in Boston, Massachusetts, where his father HRH Prince Mahidol of Sogkhla was studying medicine at Harvard University.
The family returned to Thailand but events took a tragic turn when Prince Mahidol died in 1929 at the age of 37 from kidney failure. Shortly afterwards, the family settled in Switzerland and the children were educated in Lausanne. But in 1932, Thailand became a constitutional monarchy and a couple of years later, King Prajadhipok abdicated and his ten-year-old nephew, King Bhumibol’s elder brother, succeeded him.
King Anada spent most of his short life in Switzerland and soon after his return to Thailand in 1946, he was found dead in mysterious circumstances with a gunshot wound to the head.
King Bhumibol, then only 18 years old, was chosen to succeed his brother and became a living god in the eyes of the Thai people.
When the King learnt of his new destiny, he took the immediate decision to change his studies from chemistry to law and political science in preparation for his new, unanticipated role.
By April 1950, King Bhumibol had married Mom Rajawongse Sirikit Kitiyakara and on May 5, 1950, he was formally crowned.
The king and queen went on to have three daughters and one son.
As king and divine being, he is so revered that in his presence all must kneel before him except for the venerable Buddhist bonze monks.
At the age of 25, the king observed traditional Buddhist principles and shaved his head, donned a monk’s robe and retired to a temple for 15 days.
King Bhumibol became Thailand’s first proper reigning monarch under the constitutional system.
Stripped of his constitutional powers, he nevertheless embraced the challenge of bringing the monarchy into step with the 20th century and has emerged as the most powerful man in Thailand and a much-loved ruler.
One of the reasons for the king’s enduring popularity is his high-profile involvement in social and development projects. He is passionate about the environment and a great advocate of self-sufficient economies.
Perhaps this outlook is a legacy from both his parents who were dedicated to improving the welfare of ordinary Thai people. His father, Prince Mahidol, is remembered for his contributions to medical education and public health in Thailand at the expense of his own health, wealth and privileged position.
King Bhumibol’s mother, HRH the Princess Mother, died in 1995 but is still fondly remembered for her tireless work to improve the lives of the poor and underprivileged in remote areas.
The king himself has travelled throughout the country, visiting each of the 72 provinces. The purpose of these frequent trips is to speak directly with the people, listen to their problems and see local conditions for himself. He actively consults with officials and looks for ways to improve things but remains conscious of his role of complementing government initiatives and not competing with them.
The driving principle behind the development projects is that they must truly benefit the people. In the case of helping poor farmers, he believes it is of great importance that they stand on their own feet and maintain their self-respect. This has led to what he calls “the new theory” which suggests each farmer divide their land into four areas.
A rice field, farm pond, fruit and wood for fuel each take up 30% and the remaining 10% is used for a house, animal farming and a vegetable garden.
This practice enables farmers to be self-sufficient and any surplus produce can be used to earn an extra income. The variety of food sources provides security against risk or crop failure in any of the other ventures. His involvement in the improvement of agricultural methods and land management has led to sustained successes. In the last decade, the hill-tribes in Northern Thailand who traditionally used ancient slash and burn farming methods, have replaced this destructive technique with those of the of the more sustainable lowlands.
Forest conservation and reforestation projects are also close to his heart and crucial to the development of water resources. There has also been substantial progress in curbing the widespread growth of opium poppies in the hill-tribes region of Thailand, as agricultural incomes from the program exceed those from the sale of opium.
Aside from his success in implementing internal development projects, King Bhumibol has also been a key player in foreign affairs. In the 1960’s the young king and queen began a series of world tours in the name of the Thai people.
The first countries the royal couple visited were Vietnam, Indonesia and Burma where he stressed the importance of unity and strengthening Asian ties. This was a time of communist insurgency and his message promoted freedom, independence and the preservation of their common heritage.
They went on to visit Europe and the United States where King Bhumibol displayed his diplomatic skills and insight. He met the leaders of countries like France and Great Britain, which had a history of aggressive colonialism in Asia and the United States where he gave thanks for foreign aid and spoke of the importance of eventual self-sufficiency.
The tour continued through the 1960s stopping in Malaysia, Taiwan, Japan, the Philippines, Canada and Iran. After this time, the King remained in Thailand but travelled extensively visiting every corner of the country and even drawing maps of the places. He has welcomed visitors such as the Dalai Lama and the President of Taiwan, which called for the king’s tact and diplomacy in the face of China’s potential disapproval.
The king’s ability to rise above politics and remain impartial during turbulent times may also explain his longevity as a popular ruler and the devotion he enjoys. Thailand has been gripped by many civil uprisings over the years but in May 1992 events dramatically spiralled out of control. The army shot at demonstrators protesting against the military government and rioters went on the rampage smashing everything in sight.
There was a face-off between Prime Minister Suchinda, who headed a government accused of rampant corruption and General Samlong, leading the insurrection by preaching the moral values of Buddhism with the support of students, the middle classes and slum-dwellers. Unbridled ambitions and partisan quarrels seriously threatened the country’s stability and King Bhumibol stepped in.
He called for the two rivals to meet with him and television viewers witnessed a remarkable scene as Prime Minister Suchinda and General Samlong knelt before their king and agreed to a peaceful resolution. The timing of his intervention in this political crisis was critical. “Before intervening, I had absolutely no idea of what I was going to say. It took me five minutes to prepare my speech and 17 minutes to deliver it.
Essentially I told the generals that brute strength never resolves anything.
That neither would be victorious in this war but there would be a victim: our Nation. The most important thing is to know when to intervene. Too soon and it would have done nothing. Too late and there would have been thousands of casualties,” said King Bhumibol.
Beyond the public face of living god, the king is a man who enjoys many hobbies and interests. He is an accomplished photographer and painter and enjoys sailing. He is also a gifted musician with a passion for jazz.
His musical training began in Switzerland and he has since composed 43 musical pieces and can play the saxophone, guitar, piano and clarinet. Formalities are waived when he plays music with other amateur musicians and music has also been a medium for friendship and communication with his subjects. The King formed the Pattana Brass Band in 1986 and its members include rural development officers, royal aides and security officers with little or no musical experience who were taught by the king himself.
The three tenets of King Bhumibol’s reign are the well-being of his subjects, the security and stability of his nation and national unity.
However, the Buddhist faith and teachings also feature frequently in his outlook.
He will often praise the virtues of the Buddhist religion as the country’s pillar of strength and many of his addresses quote the Buddhist scripture. When the king ascended to the throne he gave his word to the Thai people that he would rule according to the just principles of Dhramma, performing good deeds that make everyone concerned happy. In addition, he must fulfil his role under the constitution as ‘defender of all other faiths in Thailand’ in a spirit of fairness and tolerance.
In recent years, King Bhumibol has suffered a string of ailments and has had heart surgery and operations for a hernia. During his last health scare, 500 monks gathered at Bangkok’s most sacred temple with Thailand’s Buddhist leader for an hour-long chant wishing the king a swift recovery. The king is a pillar of stability for the country and news of his illness immediately caused the stock market and national currency to fall.
In a tribute marking King Bhumibol’s Golden Jubilee in 1996, celebrating 50 years of his rule, a royal procession of barges and illuminated boats floated down the Chao Phyra.
The destination was the Temple of Dawn where the King performed the annual ceremony of presenting the Kathin robes to the monks. The procession was also the debut of a new royal barge, the Narai Song Suban Rama IX, which was specially ordered in honour of the ceremony bringing together Thailand’s finest architects, artists and craftsmen. It was also the first royal barge to be built in the 20th century.
The respect and admiration that the Thai people have for their king may seem to hark back to the times of absolute monarchy but this is now a constitutional monarchy and has been for many years. It is no longer a distant and omnipotent institution and instead has shown itself to be hard-working, compassionate and realistic. The respect and affection for King Bhumibol, The Soul of the Nation remains as strong as ever.