King Bhumibol Adulyadej: Thailand’s monarch for seven decades

Obituary: Thai people came to see the king as the embodiment of stability

A mourner holds the portrait of King Bhumibol Adulyadej:   December 5th, 1927-October 13th, 2016. Photograph: Athit Perawongmetha/Reuters

A mourner holds the portrait of King Bhumibol Adulyadej: December 5th, 1927-October 13th, 2016. Photograph: Athit Perawongmetha/Reuters


King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand, who took the throne of the kingdom once known as Siam shortly after the second World War and held it for more than 70 years, establishing himself as a revered personification of Thai nationhood, has died aged 88.

Bhumibol was a unifying figure in a deeply polarised country, and his death cast a pall of uncertainty across Thailand, raising questions about the future of the monarchy itself.

The military junta, which seized power in a coup two years ago, derives its authority from the king. But the king’s heir apparent, Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, seen by many as a jet-setting playboy, is not held in the same regard as his father.

Bhumibol spent most of his final years in a special suite at a hospital. His portrait hung in almost every shop, and as his health declined, billboards proclaimed “Long Live the King,” signalling widespread anxiety about a future without him. In response, he openly fretted about the people feeling so insecure.

Thais came to see the king as a father figure wholly dedicated to their welfare, and as the embodiment of stability in a country where political leadership rose and fell through decades of military coups.

Bhumibol was an accidental monarch, thrust onto the throne at 18 by the violent death of his older brother in 1946. He embraced the role of national patriarch, upholding Thailand’s traditions of hierarchy, deference and loyalty.

If he was a people’s king, Bhumibol was a quiet and somewhat aloof one. He was a man of sober, serious mien, often isolated in his palaces, protected by the most stringent of lèse-majesté laws, which effectively prevent almost any public discussion of the royal family.

But he had a worldly bent. Born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where his father was a student at Harvard, he was educated in Switzerland, spoke impeccable English and French, composed music, played jazz on the clarinet and saxophone, wrote, painted, took up photography, and spent hours in a greenhouse at his Chitrlada Palace in Bangkok.

Once he had returned from Europe, however, he stayed put. Never interested in a jet-set life, he stopped travelling abroad, saying there was too much to do at home. He was content to trudge through croplands in distant provinces, tending to the many development projects he encouraged and oversaw.

In a political crisis, Thais admired him for his shrewd sense of when to intervene – sometimes with only a gesture – to defuse it, even though he had only a limited constitutional role and no direct political power.

“We are fighting in our own house,” he scolded two warring politicians he had summoned to sit abjectly at his feet in 1992. “It is useless to live on burned ruins.”

Eleven years earlier, he had aborted a coup by simply inviting the besieged prime minister, Prem Tinsulanonda, to stay at a royal palace with the king and queen.

Thailand was transformed during his reign, moving from a mostly agricultural economy to a modern one of industry and commerce and a growing middle class. He presided over an expansion of democratic processes, though it was halting. He witnessed a dozen successful military coups and several attempted uprisings, and in his last years, his health failing, he appeared powerless to stem sometimes violent demonstrations, offering only vague appeals for unity and giving royal endorsement to two coups.

Bhumibol Adulyadej was born in 1927, the son of Prince Mahidol of Songkhla.

Bhumibol’s mother, Princess Sangwalya Chukramol, was a Thai nurse studying on a scholarship at Simmons College in Boston when she met the prince. Bhumibol had an older brother, Ananda, and a sister, Galyani Vadhana.

His father died when Bhumibol was two, and his mother took her children to Switzerland for schooling. Their family life was interrupted in 1935 when Thailand’s last absolute king, Prajadhipok, Mahidol’s half brother, abdicated in the wake of a military coup. The crown passed to Mahidol’s eldest son, Prince Ananda, 10.

Ananda was barely into his 20s when, on June 9th, 1946, he was found dead in his private chambers with a bullet through his head. Bhumibol was the last family member to have seen him alive, but he never spoke publicly about the death or about rumours that the young king may have committed suicide or killed himself accidentally.

Bhumibol was anointed king.

While on a trip to Paris, he met Sirikit Kitiyakara, whose father, a Thai prince, was serving as a diplomat in Europe. They married in 1950, the year Bhumibol was formally crowned Rama IX of the Chakri dynasty.

Bhumibol is survived by Queen Sirikit, Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn and three daughters, Princesses Ubolratana, Sirindhorn and Chulabhorn.

New York Times News Service