Why the Thai people cry for His Majesty

Why the Thai people cry for His Majesty

A man wipes his tears as he mourns the passing of King Bhumibol outside the Grand Palace. (Photo by Wichan Charoenkiatpakul)
A man wipes his tears as he mourns the passing of King Bhumibol outside the Grand Palace. (Photo by Wichan Charoenkiatpakul)

While the vast majority of Thais at home and abroad are in a mourning mood, yearning for a bygone past with an emerging angst for what is to come after King Bhumibol Adulyadej's spectacular seven-decade reign, this grief is not universally shared. Not all Thais feel this way. A small minority are relatively indifferent in their reaction to the end of the reign. A smaller fraction may even challenge and oppose what looks like wide and deep grief and sorrow wherever in the world the Thai sphere reaches. This minority should be allowed to hold their beliefs and sentiments without persecution and harassment but they should also pay due respect to others who want to mourn.

Dissenters do not have to join in the national outpouring of grief and tears, and they can do so with civility. But they should not publicly and provocatively insult and offend the late monarch's memory and legacy.

The government must handle this small dissenting column in a far-sighted and open-minded fashion by allocating space and urging common sense more than brandishing the force of law. Mishandling those who disagree with the reign and its immediate aftermath could backfire at home and push Thailand into a self-inflicted and self-defeating corner abroad.

For the vast majority of Thais who mourn and miss King Bhumibol's reign, the challenge is to relate and convey their experiential respect and reverence to the outside world for international perspective and understanding. It is not too daunting a task because foreigners generally harbour goodwill towards Thailand to begin with.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak is associate professor and director of the Institute of Security and International Studies, Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University.

Thailand is a coded place where what you see is sometimes not what you get. It can be studied and learned about through books and newspapers but the country can only be truly understood from being there among the Thais. This code, for example, means that Thais from academics and farmers to vendors of all stripes could step out into the streets and, with very exceptions, find people with the same belief about their King. Little needs saying. They just know it.

Central to the Thai code is the role the late King has played over the decades to have earned such an intimate regard from his people. The reasons they cry for him date back a long time.

Kingship was initially not meant for the late monarch. He was supposed to have played second fiddle to his elder brother, King Ananda Mahidol. Old photos and film footage indicate the two brothers were inseparable, the best of friends. They were schoolboys who both became kings unwittingly when the monarchy was at its nadir. Civilian and military leaders in the 1930s squabbled and struggled for power through the World War II and placed a boy on the throne almost as an afterthought. When King Ananda died unexpectedly in 1946, teenager King Bhumibol was thrust upon the throne practically without a choice.

So in the Thai collective imagination, this was a monarch who did not want to be King in the first place. Yet after becoming King, he threw himself into the job of nation-building. At the outset, military rulers at the time deployed King Bhumibol around the country and later abroad to garner domestic legitimacy and to mobilise international support as the Cold War gathered pace. The late monarch was up to the task and eventually surpassed it. By working up and down the country tirelessly from rugged hills and remote rivers to malaria-infested jungles promoting myriad public works projects, he earned and accumulated more popularity and moral authority than the military could ever hope to build. He also became patron and sponsor of numerous charities, and endorsed and handed out as many state-related papers from official documents to university diplomas. The record of all that he did is available in various media outlets.

But to the Thais, they saw a selfless man who made sacrifices to get Thailand through the hard and precarious years of the Cold War, a monogamist King who lived a monastic life of devotion and duty, devoid of private jets and yachts and even the mundane pleasure of nicotine and alcohol. Over his reign, the tide of economic development lifted Thais' collective boat. True, some gained more than others but all were better off over the reign. Thais saw how the late King, with his various talents and accomplishments in music, engineering, sailing, the arts and development work, never travelled abroad again after a worldwide tour in the early 1960s. It is as if he was on the job and on show 24/7, non-stop.

So to the Thais, King Bhumibol was the consummate leader and anchor of their land. No matter what happened, Thais always knew that things would have a way of working out and that we would be all right in the end because he was there as a buffer of stability and the final arbiter of conflict. Thais sympathised when they see him not smiling. He did not smile that much so that they could smile more.

When he advanced in years, their sympathy and respect intensified because they saw how his work had taken a toll, how he suffered into old age for the country that they now have. In many ways, he defined the way Thais were. Saying goodbye to who they were and the way they have been because of a king who did so much for so little is hard to do.

There are caveats. Cynics and critics and those who are uninitiated may claim the Thais have gone overboard as if they have been hypnotised in a cultish fashion. They will say it was all orchestrated for power and prestige, that it was a grand brainwash from indoctrination and socialisation in schools and the streets, reinforced by the law. But Thais are not dumb. If the man was not that good in the job, if he had not cared so much for so long, if he had not led the country through those tough decades and enabled economic development in the process, no amount of propaganda would have worked.

This is why the Thais are crying for their King today.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak

Senior fellow of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University

A professor and senior fellow of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Political Science, he earned a PhD from the London School of Economics with a top dissertation prize in 2002. Recognised for excellence in opinion writing from Society of Publishers in Asia, his views and articles have been published widely by local and international media.

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