Context will be hard to come by this coming week as Thais bid farewell to their late monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, and his 70-year reign whose light gave out on Oct 13 last year. There is a mismatch of seeing Thailand today with all of its modernity and cosmopolitanism compared to how the country was shaped and formed in earlier decades. To understand the spectacle and outpouring of grief and respect this week leading to the cremation of King Bhumibol next Thursday, it is instructive to look back at the distance Thailand has travelled from where it began rather than its direction and destination, which are important but for another time.
First, King Bhumibol's sheer longevity stands out. Record books point out that the late King was the world's longest-reigning monarch at the time of his passing, that the durability of his throne was unrivalled in Thai history. When the late King ascended the throne more than 71 years ago, still just 19, World War II had barely ended and the Cold War had not started in earnest. King Bhumibol's reign subsequently outlasted the span of France's fall in Dien Bien Phu through the Korean War and American's wrenching loss in Vietnam. It traversed the global sounds of music from Elvis and the Beatles through all varieties of pop and rock throughout the ages up to Taylor Swift.
Thitinan Pongsudhirak teaches international relations and directs the Institute of Security and International Studies, Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University. This article is the third in a series appearing on Fridays this month focusing on the royal cremation and the 9th reign.
For Thai demographics, just about all Thais alive today have been born and bred during the reign. That is saying a lot, because it means all Thais have the 9th reign in common. They may have different beliefs, views and interests but all grew up under the reign, one way or another. Seven decades and 126 days were a very long time for any working life, let alone a monarch's. Staying on and around for that long should be noticed.
Second, chance and circumstance rendered this particular reign unique. In 1946, the monarchy was at a low point, whereas military and civilian elites in the emerging new bureaucracy dominated. As these elites squabbled and competed for power, the monarchy regained a role with the onset of the Cold War and the imperatives of economic development. By the late 1950s, a military clique emerged at the top and deployed the monarchy as the rallying and unifying symbol for a largely agrarian society facing development challenges within and communist expansionism from outside.
Thus began the symbiotic relationship between the military and the monarchy. Initially, the military held substantial political power but King Bhumibol later accumulated so much moral authority from his own nation-building efforts that the monarchy eventually eclipsed the military and became the apex of Thai society. The Cold War was instrumental in this outcome. The fight against communism during the 1950s-80s necessitated a strong state revolving around the military, monarchy and bureaucracy, the trinity of institutions that carried Thailand through the Cold War while its neighbours left and right became autarkic (Burma) or fell to communism (Indochina).
Without the monarchy under King Bhumibol, alternative outcomes during that period would have included military dictatorship that was inward-looking like Gen Ne Win's in Burma or relatively outward-oriented such as former army strongman President Suharto's in Indonesia. Both were repressive and violent. Regrettably, democratic institutions, such as parliament, political parties and elected representatives, were overwhelmed by the domestic tide of anti-communism. So a strong monarchy at the time enabled to keep Thailand out of communism's way, a feat many Thais appreciate in view of the massive sufferings in communist-controlled countries nearby.
Third, King Bhumibol's force of personality and character made the Thai system during the Cold War work the way it did. This was a young monarch who had been born in the US and had grown up in Switzerland because of circumstances beyond his control and yet returned to preside over Thailand in its hour of need. The Thai nation was looking for a king, and King Bhumibol found a nation and rebuilt a kingdom. Chance and circumstance converged for the late King and the Thai people in ways that cannot be recaptured.
Naturally, kingship during the Cold War was buttressed by the weight and spread of officialdom, with its indoctrination and socialisation in schools and state-owned media. Nationwide propaganda inculcated school children to detest communism and embrace the nation, religion and the monarchy. Children sang martial songs like billboard hits. A succession of coups ensured the traditional political order would see off alternative power players and arrangements.
There is a lot of hagiography and officially enforced views about Thailand's traditional institutions but it all would not have worked without King Bhumibol the way that he was. Through the decades, the late monarch threw himself at making Thailand a better country, its people a lot less poor, with better means and livelihoods. For 49 years before his passing, King Bhumibol travelled abroad just once, to Vientiane in 1994, for an official ceremony to commemorate the Australia-built Friendship Bridge between Thailand and Laos. The late monarch owned no fancy vehicles or other trappings that would have been seen as extravagant and lavish, living a quasi-monastic and monogamist life which became a symbol and example for Thais to aspire to.
For Thailand's superstitious people who are obsessed with astrological numbers, their monarch came to the throne on the 9th day of the 6th month of 1946, and celebrated 60 years on the throne in 2006. His reign was the 9th – 9 being an auspicious numeral which equates to stepping forward as "progress" -- of the Chakri Dynasty that harked back 234 years by the end of his reign.
Beyond circumstances, the Thai people and their King mutually bonded in the 1960s-90s. Apart from initiating several thousand development projects up and down the country, King Bhumibol presented more than half a million diplomas to university graduates. His wide-ranging talents featured his love for music, and it was here that many Thai people will remember their King by. Chief among the songs between the Thais and their King is the royal anthem, at once a direct relationship between King and subject, a message of deference, gratitude and exaltation. Many Thais of certain ages -- the millennials would feel it less -- are commonly moved by its lyrics and melody. The royal anthem will now forever feel melancholic and nostalgic to many Thais.
From a first-hand account, the 9th reign to me was the way we Thais used to be. It was a lonely, precarious time in the face of communism and a lack of means and living standards at home. Water shortages and electricity blackouts were common. As television was limited, there was not much to do after dark but to sleep. Reared by my late grandmother, who loved and respected King Bhumibol to the deepest marrow of her bones, Thailand in the 1970s had King Bhumibol as the cohesive glue of society and a bulwark of security, reinforced by the military and backed by the Thailand-United States treaty alliance.
In January 1979, when the Vietnamese invaded and took over Cambodia from the Khmer Rouge within two weeks, I remember vividly front-page news showing then-army chief Gen Prem Tinsulanonda standing on the other side of a Soviet tank across the border. Among myriad others, the two main nation-saving achievements of King Bhumibol's long reign to me revolve around keeping communism at bay and enabling economic development in a rather tough and rough neighbourhood.
It is crucial to note that there were dissenters during the 9th reign. They derived from a competing political narrative that arose from the 1932 overthrow of the absolute monarchy and lost out in power struggles in 1946-57 and then again in the mid-1970s. Many of them suffered from repression and persecution over the years. This narrative has re-emerged and is now a formidable force to be reckoned with in the future.
Reconciling these two narratives through compromise and mutual concessions will determine whether Thailand can re-emerge after so much tension and turmoil in the twilight of the reign. But for now, as the royal cremation completes the most glorious reign the Thai people have ever known, we are saying goodbye to a great King whose final departure will take with it a collective part of us, the Thai people.