Tragedy, according to Aristotle’s famous definition 24 centuries ago, is the spectacle of a noble and admirable protagonist who drags himself and those around him into disaster “brought about not by vice or depravity, but by some error or frailty”. Watching a good person brought to ruin by a tragic flaw or mistake, we feel the emotions of pity and fear: we are reminded that even the best among us are only human, and that we forget this at our peril.
When Prince Bhumibol Adulyadej pulled the trigger of his brother’s Colt .45 automatic pistol in King Ananda Mahidol’s bedroom on the morning of June 9, 1946, he thought no harm would be done. He had removed the magazine that contained the pistol’s bullets. All except one. He forgot that there was a single round still in the chamber, and he shot and killed his brother by mistake. It broke his heart.
When he agreed to lie about what had happened, and hide his own complicity, again he thought no harm would be done. He thought it could do some good. He had made one small mistake, with unfathomably terrible consequences: the death of a beloved brother, the regicide of King Rama VIII of Siam. There is evidence that at first he wanted to tell the truth about what had happened, and take responsibility for what he had done. Two key witnesses, royal page But Pathamasarin (executed in 1955 for a crime he did not commit) and longtime Mahidol family physician Dr Nitya Vejjavivisth, reported hearing Bhumibol arguing with his mother in the hours after Ananda was shot; But Pathamasarin heard Sangwan tell him: “Whatever you want to do, do it.”
For Bhumibol, lying about what he had done was not a way of shirking responsibility. Quite the reverse: his failure to confess was in many ways a profound sacrifice. Had he told the truth about the death of Ananda, he could have escaped back to Switzerland for a very comfortable life as a playboy prince, albeit a notorious one. Instead, he lied, and accepted the crushing burden of kingship, a role that he had never wanted. He resolved to devote himself tirelessly to royal duty for the rest of his life. It probably seemed the only way he could even begin to make amends. He was not to know that the noxious consequences of his decision would lead to so many more people being killed, and would disfigure Thailand so disastrously for the whole of his reign.
But choosing lies over truth was Rama IX’s tragic mistake, the trigger for a toxic chain of events that caused terrible damage to Thailand. As Kobkua Suwannathat-Pian wrote in Kings, Country and Constitutions:
The King’s death profoundly affected contemporary Thai politics and politicians. The most outstanding victims of the fallout from the royal death were Pridi and his political supporters who were completely and effectively blotted out of Thai politics. Though Pridi had never been formally charged with a crime connected with the King’s death, he was so totally discredited by the ongoing smear campaign conducted by the 1947 Coup Group and the trial of regicide that he had lost most of his popularity with the people at large. In fact until his death, Pridi found it impossible to return to Thailand to defend his good name. The political demise of Pridi and the liberals and the ideals that they represented made it that much easier for the military and conservatives, each in turn, to mould the country’s political system to their own tastes and requirements. With their anti-Pridi credentials, both were able to assume the role of protectors of the monarchy especially against wayward leaders in cohort with national enemies such as the communists. The public apprehension of leftists and communists had repeatedly been whipped up to serve the political objectives of the post-1947 ruling élite, often at the expense of democracy and individual basic rights, and, most ironically of all, against the best interests of the Throne itself…
It is almost futile to try to second-guess history: what would have happened had Ananda not met with his untimely death? … Could or would he have prevented the ascendancy of the military in Thai politics? What would have been the fate of Pridi and the liberals in this political situation? What would have been the role of the monarchy if Ananda could have pulled off this supposed coup? Whatever the answers to these questions, there can be no denying that the young King’s untimely demise did change the course of Thai political history.
The aftermath of his brother’s death was intensely traumatic and emotionally damaging for Bhumibol. He had to perform archaic death rituals on his brother’s corpse. Some of Ananda’s bones had to be broken to fit him into the funeral urn. And for weeks afterwards, Bhumibol and his mother went to sit quietly by the urn in the late afternoon every day, meditating on the disaster that had befallen them.
A cable from British ambassador Geoffrey Thompson on August 17 describes the impact on Bhumibol:
His Majesty looked ill and depressed. Only by a supreme effort on our part could he be be induced to speak and the audience was painful.
Back in Lausanne, Bhumibol repeatedly delayed his return to Thailand for his brother’s cremation. William Stevenson, who discussed this period with Bhumibol, wrote about his anguish in The Revolutionary King:
As the months passed, Lek drifted back into his old identity, but life was more difficult without Elder Brother. To make things easier, Lek pushed aside the memories of Bangkok… The press saw him as yet another dispossessed playboy royal and soon lost interest. Thrones were toppling, empires dissolving. Back in the snug privacy of the only real home he’d had, Lek could go out and do as he pleased, see anyone, speak freely. He relaxed back into the certainties of western classrooms. In Bangkok, he’d had to cope with an elite whose long names were hard to remember and kept changing, so that he would think he was dealing with several different personages until they turned out to be one and the same. It had been equally hard to get a grip on places, institutions and beliefs: the names were slippery, and the gods switched faces and purposes. Here at university, everything was concrete: information stayed the same from one lesson to another.
Jazz was the only activity which had saved his sanity in Siam… Now, jazz connected him with the Elder Brother of the old carefree days. How baffling those brief months in Bangkok all seemed. He had to go back. But what did he have to offer?
The Princess Mother suffered mental depression of a kind that would destroy a lesser person. Adding to the trauma of seeing her son die was a palace environment from which cruel gossip was relayed to the ordinary people for whom she had real respect. It was being said that she thought her first son was weak; that she wanted to be founder of a strong new line of kings; that she had attended to Nan’s body inhumanely with cool detachment. The truth was that her simple Buddhist faith taught her death was only a door we all had to pass through. She tried not to search for some mistake she might have made leading to the tragedy, and concentrated on practicalities.
Rumours were rife that Bhumibol would abdicate. Several times, according to reports by American and British diplomats, he was on the verge of doing so. Had he confessed the truth, even at this late stage, he could have averted Thailand’s unfolding tragedy.
The royalists raced to find a suitable wife for Bhumibol, hoping this would help overcome his dejection. As Time magazine reported:
Many mammas of the Siamese nobility got the idea that the climate of Lausanne would be good for their daughters. Quite a “court” developed around Phumiphon. Winner of the tournament was the Princess Sirikit Kitiyakara, who also likes music.
In an interview for the 1980 BBC documentary Soul of a Nation, Sirikit recalled their first meeting in Paris, where her father was Thai ambassador:
It was hate at first sight… because he said he would arrive at 4 o’clock in the afternoon. He arrived at 7 o’clock, kept me standing there, practicing curtsey, and curtsey.
According to a Life magazine article in February 1950, Bhumibol and Sirikit also argued about music that day:
It was music … that led to the king’s engagement. Dining at the Siamese embassy in Paris two years ago, he met Princess Sirikit, then a budding 15-year-old with some odd ideas. For example, she had acquired a strong taste for bebop. The king, a confirmed antibebopist, argued patiently with her all through dinner but got nowhere. At the end he asked her father, Prince Mom Chao Nakkhatmongkol Kitiyakara, for permission to take her out, let her listen to a few orchestras and discover what he meant. When the princess came to Lausanne to attend high school at the Pensionnat Riante-Rive there were opportunities for more talk and personal demonstrations by the king on the piano. They never did settle the question, the princess holding firm to her bebopist convictions, but they did settle other things. Last July the king called Prince Nakkhatmongkol to Lausanne [and] asked for the hand of his daughter.
Sirikit was beautiful and feisty. Bhumibol’s car crash in October 1948 was to prove decisive in bringing them together, as she told the BBC:
It was love… I didn’t know that he loved me, because at that time I was only 15 years old and planned to be a concert pianist. He was gravely ill in the hospital… He produced my picture out of his pocket, I didn’t know he had one, and he said: “Send for her, I love her.” I thought of being with the man I love only. Not of the duty, and the burden of becoming queen.
Sirikit moved to Lausanne, officially to help Bhumibol with his convalescence. They were engaged on July 19, 1949, to widespread joy in Thailand.
But among global media, Bhumibol’s reputation as an absentee playboy monarch was becoming more pronounced.
John Stanton’s Life article in 1950 was full of scorn for Bhumibol’s Lausanne lifestyle:
When his brother died, it was felt that the new king should switch his educational emphasis from architecture, which he was then studying, to law. Dutifully Phumiphon attended a law course at Lausanne University, but because of his auto accident studying gave him such a headache that he has not been back since. Since then, however, he has shown his regard for the law by the pleasant little ceremony with which he greets each new day: awakened by one of his twin aides, he takes from him a law book along with his coffee and croissants. Occasionally the king looks at the book. Other times he uses it as a prop for his pillow and lies back to contemplate the ceiling. In these restful moments his thoughts generally wander to music, more specifically to Johann Sebastian Bach. Bach, the king has declared, “is the daddy of us all.”
After a suitable period of such reflection the king (so each of his Lausanne days has usually gone) rises and proceeds to his gadget-cluttered study. Here he smilingly confronts a piano (with organ attachment), desk, movie screen, movie projector, film-editing machinery, radios, wire recorders and models of ships of the Siamese navy. Amid this disarray King Phumiphon attends to the mail from Bangkok. Mostly the mail is light, a fill-in on the local situation from his uncle, Prince Regent Rangsit of Chainad, or a few bills to be paid. Then the king lunches with his mother and spends the afternoon out taking pictures if the weather is good, indoors working over his musical scores if it rains. Evenings he spends chatting with his mother, reading the Bangkok magazines and technical books on photography or, occasionally, touring the local nightspots. About once a week a group of boys come in for their jam session.
Stanton treats Bhumibol’s behaviour as evidence that Siam’s king was a spoiled and idle young man. But there is another credible explanation for Bhumibol’s listlessness, his long solitary periods lying in bed or alone in his study, and his decision to drop out of university. All of this behaviour is highly consistent with depression.
In early 1950, Bhumibol finally boarded the diesel liner Selandia to return to his kingdom with his 17-year-old fiancée Sirikit. It was a long journey, via the Suez Canal, Aden, Colombo, Penang, Port Swettenham, Malacca and Singapore. The last time he had been aboard the Selandia was as a boy 11 years before, on his way back to Switzerland, with his protective and assertive mother Sangwan and his brother, King Ananda. Now Ananda was dead, and Sangwan was unwell and could not make the trip. Bhumibol had plenty of time to think about what lay head of him, and to feel afraid.
He was heading back to a country roiled by political intrigue, and a region where the U.S. battle against communism was increasingly dominating events. As John Stanton wrote in Life:
Siam wants its King back. Siamese diplomats complain that a big backlog of kingly business has jammed up during the monarch’s prolonged absence…
More important are the political fires blazing all around Siam. Siam, as Asia goes these days, outwardly seems snug and insular, with that oddly idyllic quality that led British soldiers during the last war to dub it “Toyland”. It is rich and not overcrowded. Its food production is more than enough to keep everyone well fed. It boasts a balanced budget, a favourable trade balance and a low price level. Its people, from the wealthiest noblemen to the lowliest tappers in the rubber plantations, are happier than in almost any Asiatic country these days. But the Communist ring is getting tighter around Siam and there are three million Chinese in the country, presumably susceptible to Communist infiltration. In such circumstances, the government feels that its hand may well be strengthened by the presence of the king, even though, of course, his constitutional ministers rule for him. Despite his long absence, Phumiphon is extremely popular in Siam. His songs, Love and My Heart and ‘Tis Sundown, are hits in Bangkok; and whenever His Majesty’s picture appears on a Siamese movie screen, the audience rises and applauds.
In an article in Life‘s sister publication, Time magazine, Stanton had also mocked the king’s long sojourn in Lausanne before finally returning to Thailand:
Three times … the young (22) King had been rumored on the way home from the villa in Lausanne, Switzerland to which he went two months after his brother’s death. Three times something (a Siamese coup, an automobile accident or a mere change of plans) had interfered. Meanwhile, as the King spent his days going to school, organizing a swing band, tinkering with his cameras and driving his cars from Switzerland to Paris, royal duties piled up in Bangkok.
Last week gangling, spectacled Phumiphon was on the Red Sea in the steamship Selandia, with his pretty fiancée, 17-year-old Siamese Princess Sirikit Kitiyakara at his side. In Bangkok’s downtown dance halls, where Siam’s hepcats curve their fingers backward and dance the rumwong, the hit of the week was a song composed by the royal jitterbug Phumiphon himself:
The little bird in a lonely flight
Thinks of itself and feels sad . . .
But Bhumibol had overcome his doubts about ever going back at all, and now he was on his way. Sirikit probably had a lot to do with this. The extent to which Bhumibol deferred to his mother had been often noted, but both of them had been heartbroken and adrift after Ananda’s death. Now another strong and determined woman was in Bhumibol’s life, and the king had finally summoned up the courage to return.
During his long sea voyage, Bhumibol received a letter from Francis Sayre, the son-in-law of former U.S. President Woodrow Wilson and a foreign policy advisor to King Prajadhipok, Rama VII:
Do not let yourself become discouraged. The Thai people themselves have great qualities. They yearn to have back in their midst their King and leader. They will be loyal and true to you… [Economic] problems which menace so many countries do not beset Siam. The country’s greatest dangers lie in other directions than these.
To meet such problems your own course will be clear. You will follow the pathway which your father always followed, the pathway of selfless service for his country and its people. Your ideals like his must be kept untarnished and shining, and your constant compass if you would avoid shipwreck must be utter goodness and integrity of character. Nothing else will so surely win your people’s hearts and strengthen your reign.
Bhumibol’s doubts and fears are clear from his poignant reply, posted from Singapore as the Selandia neared Bangkok:
You know Siam much better than I do. I shall try not to get discouraged, although sometimes I nearly got discouraged even in Switzerland. But I know I must hold on [to] what I think is the right thing to do, and I can assure you I shall try my best.
Part of King Bhumibol’s tragedy is that he really did try his best. In the six decades that followed he strove to do his duty, and struggled to do what he thought was right for Thailand. The malign consequences of the accidental killing of his brother poisoned his reign, but his devotion to duty is unquestionable. At the start of a long hagiographic summary of his reign in the introduction to King Bhumibol Adulyadej: A Life’s Work, Rama IX is described as “extremely disciplined, meticulous and imbued with a great sense of duty following the death of his brother”. It is a rare moment of insight in a book largely bereft of it. But the book fails to say, of course, that the sense of duty that drove Bhumibol was fuelled by his feelings of guilt for killing Ananda.
Bhumibol’s life was utterly changed by Ananda’s death. It robbed him of his only real friend, and unhinged his mother, and of course it made him king, but its impact went much further even than that: the calamity was fused into the DNA of the Ninth Reign. It profoundly shaped Bhumibol’s behaviour and choices as King Rama IX, and blighted Thailand’s destiny, tipping the balance of fate away from democracy and towards prolonged militarism.
Bhumibol himself acknowledged the extent to which Ananda’s death moulded his reign, in comments to William Stevenson:
When my brother died, I became my brother. I did what he wished to do.
Stevenson says Bhumibol was not speaking metaphorically: he meant it literally. Bhumibol believed Ananda’s soul had been melded with his own and became part of who he was as Rama IX. Several times in his discussions with Stevenson recounted in The Revolutionary King, describing events long after his brother’s death, he mentions Ananda was with him:
When I became my brother, we shared a schoolboy innocence. A great asset. I try to keep his clarity of vision, but I am the brother that everyone sees, and I have to be pragmatic. Half of me is him, and half of him is me. So, if anything, I’m really Rama Eight-And-A-Half.
Ananda’s death impacted Bhumibol’s reign in fundamental ways. Firstly, it left him broken and emotionally stunted. The goofy and awkward schoolboy who loved tinkering with gadgets and playing practical jokes was frozen within him, locked inside his new identity: the unsmiling, determined, distant dhammaraja, King Rama IX. Although Stevenson’s book is risible as a factual historical document, The Revolutionary King contains plenty of psychological insight, much of it accidental. One of the insights comes right at the start of the prologue:
Some said he was a god and others said he remained a western schoolboy.
Both personalities are part of Bhumibol’s complex character. He is worshipped as a semi-divine monarch who transcends human frailties and weaknesses, a superhumanly wise and virtuous king, but trapped inside him remains the gauche, gangling 18-year-old boy who never wanted to be king. Famously, after Ananda’s death Bhumibol’s whole demeanour altered. As Handley wrote in The King Never Smiles:
As the palace plunged into shock, suddenly, life changed prodigiously for Bhumibol. Within hours, the bright, often smiling and joking prince, more interested in European cars and American jazz than anything Thailand had to offer, would be named king of a country in which he had spent less than 5 of his 18 years. He would almost never be seen smiling in public again.
Secondly, Ananda’s death pushed Bhumibol headlong into the antiquated rituals and mysticism of Thai royalism, a world previously totally alien to him. He consciously and comprehensively reversed the modernizing approach to royal ritual in place since the rule of King Chulalongkorn, Rama V. A profile of Bhumibol in Britain’s Observer newspaper in 1950 described him as “master and slave of tradition”, and over the decades since he has immersed himself ever deeper in ancient sacral tradition and left his previous Swiss-educated rationalist self further and further behind. Stevenson says this change in Bhumibol began with Ananda’s death, and this is psychologically plausible: one way to cope with his grief, and make sense of the terrible mistake he had made, was to see his ascent to the throne as destined, and to view himself as uniquely special. Bhumibol was of course encouraged in this by those around him who were forever extolling his greatness. A driving theme of many classical tragedies is the hubris of the hero who becomes convinced that he is more than human. Bhumibol began to believe in his own myths and fables, and increasingly lost sight of reality as his reign progressed.
Thirdly, the shame he felt about Ananda’s death gave Bhumibol a consuming need to be loved. He wanted the adulation of his kingdom’s people. He hungered to be praised, absolved, worshipped, and this has been a hallmark of his reign.
Fourth, an underlying paranoia and panic has always been palpable in the palace under Rama IX. There is no doubt that at times Bhumibol’s position was difficult and even dangerous. But this does not fully explain the extent of the anxiety and sense of impending doom that has always hung over him. He knew that the secret of his responsibility for Ananda’s death had the potential to destroy his reign, and it haunted him. Many of his actions over the years only make sense in this context.
Bhumibol began hammering home his warnings of disaster from the earliest years of his reign. His New Year message in 1951 told Thais:
History has told us that nations are annihilated when their people lack unity, when they divide into factions which try to take advantage of each other. I enjoin upon the Thai people to recall with gratitude how our ancestors worked with unanimity and were ready to bear sacrifice for the good of the nation.
The same theme has been one of Rama IX’s core messages ever since. He does not merely tell Thais that unity and a sense of common purpose will be beneficial for the country’s development and prosperity. He insists that without unity, Thailand will face a cataclysm, worse even than the apocalypse that destroyed Ayutthaya; the country will be wiped off the map, and will sink beneath the sea, a shattered and forgotten wreck. Thais listen politely to these regular doom-laden warnings, and the media praises Bhumibol for his immense wisdom and foresight, but in private many people have long questioned whether the king’s scaremongering is justified.
Fifth, this sense of paranoia helps explain the royalist terror of the truth that has become such a crisis in 21st century Thailand, with increasingly rabid enforcement of the lèse majesté law. Bhumibol’s reign was built on lies — about what had happened in 1946 and who was to blame — and the king and those around him are well aware of this. They simply could not allow the kind of open discussion and debate about the monarchy that was commonplace during the reigns of Rama VI and Rama VII. Thailand was dragged backwards, because going forward would have meant allowing freedom of information and freedom of speech that could destroy Bhumibol. Even now, more than six decades after the king shot his brother, Thailand remains cursed by the consequences.
King Bhumibol arrived back in Siam on March 24, 1950. He had been gone for nearly four years. He had been free from the ponderous and suffocating rituals of the Grand Palace and away from the bloodied memories of the Barompiman Hall. Now he had to face his fears and his shame, and cremate his brother’s corpse.
On his arrival, vast crowds turned out to welcome him to a country that had never been his home but had become his kingdom. Dazzled by the scene, Time correspondent Stanton shed some of his scepticism:
Bangkok’s newspapers appeared in odd-colored inks to mark the day — red, blue, green, and a raspberry known locally as impulsive red. Instead of news stories they carried long columns of verse. At 5 a.m., a navy radio station began to broadcast the proceedings. It was a most discreet broadcast, failing to mention that when the King was transferring by PT boat from the liner Selandia to the Sri Ayuthia, he did a good-humored dance to the buffeting of the waves.
As the Sri Ayuthia came up the Chao Phraya river, thousands of sampans rushed out to greet him, and radios blared recordings of Anchor’s Aweigh and the King’s own musical compositions. By noon of a blistering day, crowds jammed all Bangkok vantage points. At 3 p.m. a landing stage at the Memorial Bridge collapsed, pitching a hundred people into the water. Since all Siamese seem to be born swimmers, no one was drowned. Since all Siamese are born cheerful, all came up grinning.
Along the broad King’s Walk, behind whose fashionable modern apartment buildings lurk some of its best-advertised houses of prostitution, Chinese merchants set up hobbyhorse displays and giant paintings of the King. Incense candles were made ready to be lighted and to waft pleasant smells (very important in Siam) when the King arrived. A youngster got tired of waiting, climbed up into a tree and went to sleep. Passers-by tickled the soles of his feet. He went on sleeping. Police wormed their way through the crowd notifying property owners that a police order issued the day before had been a big mistake: contrary to the order, people were allowed to watch the procession from rooftops.
The Royal Guards, in their red coats, black pants and spiked helmets, stood as stiffly as guards at Buckingham Palace. But there was a difference. In Siam there is always a difference. Water boys stood by the guards, watching them closely. When they saw a soldier close his eyes and sway, they would rush up, slosh water down his neck and give him a whiff of smelling salts.
When at last the King came ashore, three small airplanes circled overhead dropping parachutes with bunches of flowers and spraying puffed rice (the gift of greeting) over the town. In a pavilion near the landing stage, the King sat down on his throne and his uncle, the Prince Regent, turned over the powers of the state to him. The King took up the sword of state and thanked the regent. Then, glancing at the Master of the Royal Household to make sure it was all right, the King walked over and exchanged a few words with the British and U.S. ambassadors. He spoke a few words into a golden microphone and stepped into his Daimler, which started with a jerk.
Associated Press estimated that half a million Thais out of a population of 18 million had jammed the streets of Bangkok to welcome the “trim, rather diffident” Bhumibol home:
As Life magazine foresaw, Bhumibol was stepping into a totally different world that would utterly change his life, and end up changing his whole personality too:
For the pomp-starved Siamese, the Arrival, the Coronation and the Cremation will be great events. But for young King Phumiphon they will signal the beginning of a new and strange life in Bangkok, where neither the saddest laments of the saxophone nor the lustiest blast on the trumpet can summon to the palace the lost delights of sweet Lausanne.
On March 29, King Bhumibol cremated Ananda’s remains. The ceremony followed ancient traditions, described by H.G. Quaritch Wales, the British scholar of Thai royal rituals, in his book Siamese State Ceremonies. Quaritch Wales explained how according to the prescribed ritual, a funeral pyre is built, to symbolize Mount Meru — the mythical peak at the centre of both the physical universe and the metaphysical spiritual cosmos according to Hinduisim, Buddhism and Jainism. On the day of the cremation, the urn containing the corpse of the king is opened, and the crown, gold ornaments and lavish clothing removed. “Only the bones remained,” said Quaritch Wales, “and these, if they fell to pieces, were rearranged in the form of a human skeleton.” A lavish, carefully ordered procession carries the body to the pyre; Quaritch Wales noted that similar processions can be seen carved in the stone bas reliefs of the beautiful Bayon temple of the Khmer in Angkor, built nearly a millennium ago. The whole ceremony is designed to emphasize that while the king’s physical body may have died, his spirit — and, crucially of course, the monarchy — survive:
It is particularly important that a Royal Cremation should be celebrated with the greatest possible pomp, because death is the greatest danger that the idea of divine kingship has to combat. It strikes right at the roots of the whole conception, and instills doubt into the minds of a people who, until recently, had not dared even to contemplate the possibility of a king suffering from any mortal infliction; and now, with the spread of western education, modern scepticism, and the shadow of communism, the Royal Cremation plays an even bigger part than formerly in impressing on the people that the king is not dead, but has migrated to a higher plane, where he will work out his destiny as a Bodhisattva for the good of all beings. The mixture of Brahmanism and Buddhism is fortunate: the former lends itself more to the exaltation of the kingship, while the latter emphasises the royal protection of the people’s religion and enables them to enter into the spirit of the ceremonies…
Around 5 p.m. Bhumibol lit a symbolic fire in the funeral pyre, and then after 10:30 p.m., in a private ritual, the king returned with close family and priests to ignite the flames that finally consumed his brother’s remains.
In an analysis for the New York Times, Tillman Durdin wrote that the vast crowds that greeted Bhumibol’s return and watched the cremation ceremony, and the obvious emotion that the king inspired in them, proved the continuing hold of the monarchy over Thais:
Bhumibol told William Stevenson years later that he had been dubious about the archaic cremation ceremonies, but Prince Rangsit convinced him of their value in demonstrating the greatness of royalty to ordinary Thai people:
Lek had to have explained to him the reason for the elaborate rituals Uncle Rangsit had prepared…
The people believed the rising flames lifted a dead king to an invisible throne among the gods. The long delay before this Spiritual Coronation had made people apprehensive. It was essential to make it the celebratory occasion it was meant to be. It summoned up beliefs grounded in the early magic of an agrarian society. The living king wondered grimly if Nan’s spirit would go anywhere until the King’s Death Case was properly closed…
Little Brother Lek saw what Uncle Rangsit meant about using this magic to keep an upper hand. The ebullience of the crowds was intoxicating. The new king walked in intense heat behind his brother’s body in the procession on foot to the pyre. Western diplomats complained of the ordeal, but Lek’s first impulse when Elder Brother died had been to give him a ‘decent burial’, and he had to go through with it. At the auspicious hour calculated by the Royal Astrologers, Lek lit the first candle. Flames leapt high. The Gongs of Victory beat a tattoo to signify the dead king’s ascension.The gold mask of a god, covering Nan’s face, vanished forever.
That night, hundreds of thousands of Siamese stayed with the ashes. Lek, unrecognized in open shirt and loose trousers, came back secretly to look at the glowing embers. Food vendors gave spicy sweetmeats to poor children, and hethought of his own mother when she had been a child with no money. He had madea vow before and he made it again: he would make kingship serve these people. But how was he to do this without… becoming a slave to superstition?
This attempt to rationalize his embrace of ritual and mysticism is typical of Bhumibol. He has always been uncomfortable about allowing foreigners to see this aspect of him too clearly. In her groundbreaking 1986 PhD thesis Thailand: The Soteriological State in the 1970s, Christine Gray notes how the issue of “antinomy” — the clash of Western and Thai cultures — has bedevilled the Thai monarchy since the 1800s:
Since at least the nineteenth century, Thai-Buddhist kings and their political successors have faced an endless variety of situations in which their performance of traditional legitimating activities delegitimates them in the eyes of their Western audiences, and their adoption of Western ideologies and modes of behavior delegitimates them in the eyes of their indigenous audiences…
Born of the colonial experience and decades of East-West dialogues and confrontations, the antinomy problem comprises a major structural principle of modern Thai history. It has had many manifestations over the course of modern Thai history: recurring conflicts over the king’s harem, his performance of lavish state ceremonies, and the sources and nature of the royal income.
For this reason, Bhumibol does his best to present his rational Westernized self to foreign audiences, while reserving the arcane mysticism for domestic consumption.
In late April, Bhumibol married Sirikit in a simple ceremony. And on May 4-5, he formally crowned himself king.
Stevenson claims Bhumibol was still deeply ambivalent about traditional rituals and that at his coronation he felt “trapped in an exhibition of the supernatural”. But for the sake of his supposedly primitive people, he had to get on with it, otherwise they might fall victim to the dangerous lure of communism:
He could see long years stretching ahead when he would have to do this for hours, days, weeks and months…
He sent his mind back to schooldays when he might have laughed with Elder Brother at all this. The situation wasn’t really funny. If he forgot these rituals, Siam would go the way of China, its dynasty ending with the abandonment of ceremony, disorder creating fiefdoms run by a score of warlords, until finally Mao had imposed absolute power…
Bhumibol appears to believe that royal ceremonies and reverence for the king are essential for maintaining social order. And so, Stevenson says, he “rationalised the use of superstitious ritual”. He quotes Bhumibol as telling him:
I thought, well, the Whisk of the Yak’s Tail originally grew out of people’s imaginations. The Sceptre was the thunderbolt of Indra and sprang from minds poetic. Our Golden Tablet of Style and Title derived from a creative act of ancient times. I had to restore the old to invent the new. You become a king. The people respond differently. The nobles approach and want to get closer. You take advice but the decisions are yours and you are terribly alone. Everything has changed.
A confidential cable from British ambassador Thompson recounts the festivities. It is interesting for the insight it gives into Anglo-U.S. rivalries during this period, and its grumbling about the journalism of Time and Life correspondent Stanton. It also shows the misgivings of the British and Americans about the fact that although he had only just arrived back in Thailand, Bhumibol was not planning to stay long:
Diplomatic efforts to try to persuade Bhumibol to stay came to nothing: he and Sirikit left on June 6, 1950, three days before the anniversary of Ananda’s death. The official reason was that Bhumibol had to complete his university studies, but in fact he never returned to Lausanne University and never received a degree.
As before, the king’s long absence and the lack of clarity on when he would return were a source of unease in Thailand. When it was announced that Sirikit was pregnant with the couple’s first child, the government of Field Marshal Phibun Songram once again petitioned Bhumibol to return:
But Bhumibol and Sirikit remained in Switzerland, Thailand’s absent king and queen. Finally, in June 1951, they declared they were ready to come home:
A letter from the Thai embassy in London to the British Foreign Office in October 1951 explained the arrangements for Bhumibol’s return:
Twice during 1951, the swaggering and shamelessly corrupt police chief Phao Sriyanond was sent to Lausanne to try to pressure Bhumibol into giving up some of the powers the royalists had won for him in the 1949 constitution. The king had contemptuously refused, and in retaliation Phao had dropped hints to European media about Bhumibol’s involvement in the death of Ananda. On November 29, 1951, with Bhumibol aboard the Meonia a few days away from Bangkok, the junta moved decisively to curtail his influence. In the so-called “Silent Coup” or “Radio Coup”, the ruling generals announced they were suspending parliament, abrogating the 1949 constitution, and returning to the 1932 version. As the New York Times reported:
It was a carefully planned strike at Bhumibol, launched when he was about to arrive in Thailand and it was too late for him to turn back to Lausanne. The whole purpose of the coup was to deflate the king’s powers, as U.S. charge d’affaires William Turner wrote in a confidential cable to Washington:
As Kobkua says, it was the beginning of a new battle between the monarchy and the military:
To the royalists, both the coup and the manner in which it was launched implicitly implied an affront to the young King who returned to take up permanent residence in his kingdom. Prince Dhani, President of the Supreme Council of State, was ‘bitterly ashamed’ of the Silent Coup…
As a result of the Silent Coup, King Bhumibol began his personal reign amidst a most intense political struggle. At stake was the question whether the Throne would reverse its position to that of a non-entity, being dependent totally depending on the executive and Parliament even for its personal requirements, as it had been compelled to be after the abdication of King Prajadhipok. Or would it be independent in its non-political attributes from the scrutiny and control of the two branches of the government? Since the King was of age and was forced to assume the kingly responsibility thrust upon him the moment he reached Bangkok, it was left to the young and inexperienced King to resolve the political crisis with the ruling clique, to the best advantage of the Throne.
On December 2, Bhumibol, Sirikit and their infant daughter Ubolrat arrived in Bangkok, transferring from the from the Meonia to the Thai naval sloop Meklong for the final stage of the journey down the Chao Phraya river. Rama IX stepped ashore an emasculated, humiliated monarch to be greeted by the smooth and smiling Field Marshal Phibun.
A cable from new British ambassador G.A. Wallinger records his return:
Over the following years, Bhumibol discovered the extent of his political weakness. Phibun and Phao treated him with barely disguised contempt. After the 1951 coup, Bhumibol’s job became purely ceremonial — as a constitutional monarch’s role is supposed to be. Kobkua writes that:
Between 1951 and 1957, King Bhumibol suffered a hard time, being a non-entity ruler in the affairs of the nation. According to the 1932 Constitution amended in 1952, the monarch was in fact a figurehead whose duty it was to symbolize the nation through parts played in various religious and traditional rites and ceremonies.
Ceremonial kings can sometimes use their position to offer advice to the government, which can be heeded or not, depending on the respect that the monarch has earned from politicians. But Phibun’s junta showed little respect for Rama IX. Nobody wanted his advice. To quote Kobkua again:
During the first decade of his reign, more out of the political situation than choice, Bhumibol spent the greater part of his time fulfilling his personal responsibilities: raising his young family; honing his knowledge and understanding about his kingdom and its problems and politics; updating his talents in music, art and photography; and fulfilling his religious obligations by entering the Buddhist monkhood in 1957. Much of his time was spent away from the oppressive atmosphere of the capital at the Hua Hin Summer Palace, at times for as long as six months a year.
As Bhumibol himself later told Barbara Crosette of the New York Times:
When I’d open my mouth and suggest something, they’d say: “Your Majesty, you don’t know anything.” So I shut my mouth. I know things, but I shut my mouth. They don’t want me to speak, so I don’t speak.
After that, I do some things that are within my rights and then they see that it is something that is all right. So they begin to understand that I am doing things not for my own enrichment or my own interest. It is for the whole country.
According to William Stevenson, Bhumibol told him he deliberately kept silent in order to wrongfoot the junta and conceal his great intelligence and wisdom:
He had settled upon silence rather than the role of the stammering fool, still with the purpose of concealing his growing wisdom. People read into his silences more than was there… The pose had a curiously intimidating effect on even the most cunning intriguers, at least when they were in the king’s presence.
In fact, Phibun and Phao do not seem to have been greatly intimidated by the unsmiling young monarch. The junta pressed ahead with drafting a new constitution that would formalize the reduction in Bhumibol’s powers. There was little the royalists could do to stop them, but Bhumibol tried to resist. At times palace officials used the threat that Rama IX might abdicate unless he won concessions. As Kobkua says:
He could employ as a last resort the ‘abdication card’ which would plunge the county into the political abyss. Without his signature, the Government set up by the Silent Coup and the coup itself were illegal.
But the military rulers had a nuclear option of their own — threatening to expose Bhumibol as his brother’s killer. Things came to a head in March 1952. Paul Handley described what happened in The King Never Smiles:
The princes now openly threatened the king’s return to Lausanne and abdication. Phibun and the generals calmly retorted that they could name their own king, mentioning Prince Chumbhot. The showdown took place when the government asked for a date on which the king would promulgate the constitution. Bhumibol didn’t answer, and, as he returned to Hua Hin, the cabinet scheduled the morning of March 8. When by March 7 it became clear that he wouldn’t return, the ceremony was canceled. The state radio announced only that the king felt promulgation should not be rushed.
That afternoon Phao led a group of officers to Hua Hin to confront Bhumibol. Several hours later, they returned to Bangkok, ushering the king along with them. At 11 the next morning in the Ananta Samakhom throne hall, to the braying of conch-shell horns, Bhumibol promulgated virtually the same constitution his uncle Prajadhipok had signed thirty years earlier. Premier Phibun stood by to countersign.
It was an extraordinary event. Bhumibol had just made his first determined attempt at political intervention, the deployment of the powerful royal prestige he had been told so often was in his crown and his blood. He failed resoundingly. Precisely how the venomous Phao intimidated the king remains secret. The general belief is that, if he didn’t threaten the king’s life, he threatened to expose Bhumibol as Ananda’s killer and to force him off the throne.
A cable from December 1953 discusses efforts by British ambassador Wallinger to encourage better relations between Phibun and Bhumibol. Wallinger told Phibun that the king “seemed to be overcoming his shyness”. Phibun brushed him off politely, saying that Bhumibol was “surrounded by a barrier of antiquated custom”:
But Phibun did make some efforts to improve relations with the king, to little avail. Bhumibol was deeply resentful at his lack of political influence and the lack of respect shown to him by the junta. A British embassy cable from January 1954 noted that the outgoing ambassador and his wife had discerned “a continuing coolness” in the attitude of Bhumibol and Sirikit towards the government. Bhumibol referred to them as “ces gens-la” — equivalent to dismissively calling them “those people” — which as the cable’s author Archie Mackenzie wrote, was “hardly the term one would expect from a constitutional monarch speaking of his own Government”:
But despite the distaste with which he viewed the government, Bhumibol did make overtures to many of them, to try to raise his standing and his influence. He made particular efforts to ingratiate himself with the man he despised most: Phao Sriyanond. According to Handley, “the palace made a special effort to befriend Phao”, partly via Bhumibol and Sirkit’s support of the Border Patrol Police:
In 1953 the king presided at major police ceremonies, granting Phao and other police generals special ranks and decorations and conferring the promotions of senior officers. Bhumibol also presided over the investiture of Phao’s personal brigade of aswin, or knights, actually the thugs who ran Phao’s drugs and protection rackets. The key to this relationship became the BPP. As the CIA client for anticommunist operations, the BPP was better trained and armed than the regular army. Its training center was next to the king’s Hua Hin palace. As he used the BPP airfield, and they served as his local escort, a special relationship blossomed. The king frequently visited the camp, joining the BPP soldiers in sports and shooting. When in 1954 the BPP began building a rural Volunteer Defense Corps of 120,000 men across the country, the king became their patron, presenting flags to corps units.
This special relationship was encouraged by both Phao and the CIA. Eventually, noted a study, the BPP “came to view themselves as holding special responsibility for protection of the Thai nation and the king.” This suited the palace because the relationship transcended Phao, and could function in Phao’s absence, or if he ever challenged the throne. Phao evidently relished the king’s attention, telling diplomats that the palace favored him while disliking Phibun.
This assiduous courting of Phao was, of course, linked to the police chief’s awareness of Bhumibol’s role in the death of his brother. And in 1955, Phao repaid Bhumibol, executing the three men falsely accused of complicity in killing Ananda. As Handley says:
In 1955, [Phao] did the throne perhaps the most important favour ever: he wrapped up the Ananda death case. It wasn’t pleasant, but it was final.
The executions made Bhumibol’s position, and his secret, safer. But three innocent men were dead as a direct result of Bhumibol killing his brother, and then lying about it at the trial. The two pages had served Bhumibol and Ananda since they were young children. The king’s conscience must surely have been troubled that his actions had now caused the deaths of three more people. But he made no effort to spare their lives, ignoring petitions for a pardon. He could have saved them, and he chose not to do so.
In his 2001 study Monarchy in South East Asia, Roger Kershaw notes that Bhumibol was in a precarious political position during this period and perhaps felt too weak to intervene:
It might be said in defence of King Bhumibol in relation to the execution of innocent men that the situation had become very difficult for him because he had already begun to pit his prerogative against the ruling military clique over the coup-legitimizing Constitution of 1951-52.
Yet this is insufficient to excuse Bhumibol’s actions. Allowing But Pathamasarin, Chit Singhaseni and Chaleo Pootomros to be put to death for a crime he knew for certain they did not commit is perhaps the most morally troubling decision of his entire reign. This is part of the tragedy: once Bhumibol had made up his mind to conceal the truth, then he too became tarnished and demeaned by the consequences of his dishonesty. He had to tell more lies, and to sacrifice others to save himself, and he did so without flinching. He was morally diminished. He became a less honourable and less admirable man.
Bhumibol’s ascent to extraordinary political power and and influence in Thailand began in earnest in 1957. Suddenly his role was transformed. Phibun and Phao, who had marginalized and ignored the king, were overthrown in a coup led by army chief Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat, another of the junta leaders and a longtime rival of Phao for control of the illegal opium trade.
By early 1957, both Phibun and Phao had become increasingly determined to limit the influence of the royalists. Both made overtures to Pridi Banomyong, with a view to discussing his return to Thailand. As a a U.S. cable from January 1957 states, Phao had privately told several people that Pridi had nothing to do with King Ananda’s death. All of this greatly alarmed the palace, and royalists were complicit in Sarit’s coup.
Handley describes Sarit as:
A cinematic picture of the Third World generalissimo: a smiling, generous man of the people, a heavy drinker, an opium trafficker, a vain womanizer, and a ruthless dictator who summarily executed criminals and political rivals to scare others. None of that was important to the princes. What they appreciated was that, never having studied abroad, Sarit subscribed to the idea of a grateful and obedient peasantry under the traditional monarch and his loyal government.
Sarit viewed the king not as a dangerous potential rival for political influence, but as an invaluable partner whose popularity could be usefully harnessed. Finally Bhumibol had what he had craved: he was treated with respect by the ruler of the kingdom.
Sarit redefined the relationship between the monarchy and the military. As Bruce Lockhart, associate professor at the National University of Singapore, wrote in his 2009 paper Monarchy and Constitution in Recent Thai History:
Sarit cultivated a close relationship with the King and Queen and took great pains to heighten the monarchy’s public role while also restoring some of the prerogatives removed under earlier regimes. His years in power are widely regarded as a watershed in the history of the Thai monarchy and as laying the foundations for the expansion of its prestige and authority in the decades to come. For much of [the period 1957-1973] there was no functioning parliament or constitution… The king maintained a relatively low profile in political terms, with little overt intervention in national affairs, but the “restoration” initiated by Sarit enabled him to gain the moral authority which would undergird his more active role after 1973.
Whatever his own personal morality — or lack thereof — Sarit was obsessed with imposing order and discipline on Thailand. And this has always been an objective central to Bhumibol’s philosophy too. The two men became firm allies. In August 1959, Time magazine reported on Sarit’s drive to make Thailand a more ordered and less chaotic society:
Sustaining himself on a diet of nuts and oranges (he had quit drinking) and working until all hours of the night, Sarit became not only Premier but the nation’s chief fireman, policeman and garbage collector. He commanded housewives to hang their laundry out of sight, abolished pushcarts, opened sheltered markets, dispatched dredges to the silted canals, bought 60 new garbage trucks for Bangkok, ordered pedicabs off the street. When a rash of fires broke out in the business district last winter. Sarit raced to the scene one night, ordered four Chinese merchants shot on the spot — a brutal but effective reminder that the annual custom of burning down shops to collect insurance for the Chinese New Year celebration was thenceforth taboo. Fortnight ago, prowling La Guardia-style about the streets of Bangkok in his chauffeur-driven car, Sarit drew up behind an automobile in which a woman sat eating fruit and throwing the peels out the window. The Premier characteristically took her license-plate number, ordered the police to pick her up and fined her 100 bahts ($5) for littering.
As Thak Chaloemtiarana argued in his seminal 1979 work on the period, Thailand: The Politics of Despotic Paternalism, it was the beginning of a partnership between Bhumibol and the military that was to dominate Thailand’s postwar history.
Sarit may have been an alcoholic and a shameless womanizer (Thak writes that “practically no-one was immune to his overtures — beauty queens, movie stars, night club hostesses, university and secondary school students, the young and not so young”) but he was an ideal ally for the young Bhumibol. Thak writes that:
On the one hand, he was seen as the completely dedicated leader, a firm and decisive person who made great personal sacrifices for the people… He was remembered as a doer and not a talker, whose firmness reduced the frequency of arson, got roads repaired, cleaned up the cities, improved communications, and advanced the economy.
On the other hand, Sarit was also seen as a nakleng, a person who was not afraid to take risks, a person who “lived dangerously”, kind to his friends but cruel to his enemies, a compassionate person, a gambler, a heavy drinker, and a lady-killer. In short, he was the kind of person who represented one central model of Thai masculinity. (The word nakleng itself has ambiguous connotations, but in male circles it is desirable to have friends who are nakleng at heart, for they will be loyal and trustworthy at times of need.) …
The heroes of Thai folklore are often just such persons, who combine daring, courage, compassion, cruelty and gentlemanly debauchery. Thais seem to enjoy a gentleman crook.
From the time Sarit seized power until the rumblings of discontent that led to the student uprising of 1973, the alliance between the military and monarchy appeared to have brought stability to Thailand. As Thak says:
Up until the late 1960s, paternalistic despotism seemed to have worked — there was stability both politically and economically — in part thanks to the Indochina policy of the United States.
Bhumibol did not appear to feel that Thailand needed more democracy. He has consistently shown himself to be comfortable with authoritarian military rule. In comments to Life magazine in 1967, he said dictatorship was preferable to communism:
Communism is impractical. Life is not each to his needs. The one who works today should get the money and the goods, not the one who doesn’t work. Communism can be worse than the Nazis or the fascists. In fact it is more terrible than a dictatorship. If, however, a dictator is a good man, he can do many things for the people. For a short while, Mussolini did many good things for the Italian people.
Authoritarian rule was fine with the United States too. Washington regarded the development of democracy and the rule of the law in Thailand as far less of a priority than ensuring a tough pro-American regime that was willing to crack down on communism. In a secret diplomatic cable in October 1959, U.S. ambassador Alexis Johnson referred without any sense of irony to the State Department’s view that “authoritarianism will remain the norm in Free Asia for a long period”. He continued:
We need not… feel self-conscious about our support of an authoritarian government in Thailand based almost entirely on military strength… Aside from the practical matter of Thailand’s not being ready for a truly democratic form of government, it can be pointed out that the United States derives political support from the Thai Government to an extent and degree which it would be hard to match elsewhere. Furthermore, the generally conservative nature of Thai military and governmental leaders and of long-established institutions (monarchy, Buddhism) furnish a strong barrier against the spread of Communist influence.
The “paternalistic despotism” of Field Marshal Sarit after he seized power in 1957 and ruled Thailand in a symbiotic alliance with King Bhumibol was another version of Thai-style democracy. It involved scrapping the old constitution, abolishing parliament, suspending elections, banning all political parties apart from his own, arresting hundreds of people who disagreed with him, and imposing severe limitations on free speech. In other words, it was flagrantly anti-democratic. But not in Sarit’s view: he insisted that his form of democracy, while admittedly a little unconventional by Western standards, was ideally suited to Thailand. To quote Kobkua:
Sarit’s basic assumption was that the Western model of democracy was out of touch with the fundamental socio-political needs of Thailand simply because it was born and developed to suit the political and social climate in the West. Because of this inherent defect, the various adjustments made to the system were simply political exercises in futility.
Sarit confidently proclaimed to the people of Thailand: “My Government hereby confirms that we will administer the affairs of the state in accordance with the democratic principles and uphold human rights.”
In reality, as Kobkua says, Sarit’s special Thai-style democracy “for all its virtuous intents and purposes was in practice the rule of military dictatorship”.
Bhumibol benefited enormously from Sarit’s rule, and in public always showed him the highest respect. But in private, he expressed contempt for the prime minister. In November 1957 he told British ambassador Sir Richard Whittington and special envoy Malcolm Macdonald that the field marshal was “corrupt and uncouth”. He added that he thought:
The present type of military regime was unhealthy, but saw no alternative to it for the foreseeable future.
The British, meanwhile, did not see much potential for Bhumibol to expand his influence. An embassy cable in 1958 argued that:
The King is intelligent, reasonably interested in politics, and follows developments with a discerning eye. There is, however, no constitutional role which he could play in politics at least until he reaches the elder statesman phase, a development which is still remote.
Sarit was only 55 years old when he died in December 1963, his liver and kidneys ravaged by decades of alcoholism. A few months later, a public dispute between his second wife and his sons over their inheritance brought the epic scale of Sarit’s corruption out into the open. Forced to investigate because of the public outcry, Sarit’s successors announced they had uncovered assets of more than $140 million that had been amassed over just 11 years, since he had become chairman of the state lottery board in 1952. Sarit had stolen tens of millions of dollars belonging to the state to invest in business and maintain dozens of mistresses around Bangkok, many of whom were given a house, car and salary.
Thais were staggered by revelations about the sheer number of mistresses on his payroll, and the amount of wealth he had amassed. As the New York Times reported in 1969, at the end of the long legal battle over his will:
Thai newspapers listed the names of more than 100 women said to have been involved with Sarit. He had become so notorious for preying on finalists in the annual Miss Thailand beauty pageant — not just the winners, but also many of the runners-up — that the event had to be suspended after 1954. It was only resumed a year after his death, with 17-year-old Abhsara Hongskul crowned Miss Thailand in December 1964.
The Bangkok Post report on her victory noted enigmatically that:
The popular annual contest was stopped 10 years ago for reasons of proprietry because improper attentions had been allegedly pressed on beauty finalists by a member of the Government.
Abhsara went on to win the global Miss Universe title in 1965.
Despite the scandalous revelations that emerged after Sarit’s death, Bhumibol declared an unprecedented 21 days of mourning in the palace for the wayward field marshal and approved ceremonial honours fit for a prince — Sarit’s body lay in state for 100 days in a gold urn under a five-tier royal umbrella. Bhumibol and Sirikit presided at the cremation on March 17, 1964, with Thailand already agog at news reports about Sarit’s stunning accumulation of wealth and women.
Bhumibol’s role and reach were transformed forever during Sarit’s premiership. Phibun had restricted the king’s travel around Thailand, well aware that in rural areas most Thais revered the monarch and that his popularity was a threat to the junta. Sarit gave his blessing to trips around the country, and in late 1955 Bhumibol visited Isaan, the Lao region colonized by the Chakri kings in the 19th century. Bhumibol was the first Chakri monarch ever to visit the province. He was greeted by adoring crowds.
Sarit also encouraged Bhumibol and Sirikit to travel abroad, and they quickly became the world’s favourite fairytale royal couple. A visit to the United States in 1960 was a roaring success, with Time magazine sparing no superlative — or King and I stereotype — in its coverage:
The King of Siam, as any heart-wrung fan of The King and I knows, is likely to be a fellow whose love for Thailand is matched by a thirst for the best of the West. The reigning King, grandson of Anna’s princely Chulalongkorn, comes by it naturally: he was born in Cambridge, Mass. 32 years ago while his father was studying medicine at Harvard, and slakes his thirst with a special passion for clarinet and sax. Last week King Bhumibol Adulyadej (pronounced Poom-i-pon A-dool-ya-date), who looks half his age, and his almond-eyed Queen Sirikit, who looks like mandolins sound, landed in Manhattan on their four-week swing through the U.S. And all the ticker-tape parade, the ride in the subway, the view from the Empire State Building faded into nothing when His Majesty went to dinner with the King of Swing Benny Goodman (and 94 others) at the suburban estate of New York’s Governor Nelson Rockefeller.
For 90 minutes after dinner, Bhumibol and Benny led a foot-stomping, starch-melting jam session. Next day the King toted a sax up to the 22nd-story roof garden above Benny’s Manhattan House apartment for the fulfillment of a jazzman’s dream. With Bhumibol and Benny were Gene Krupa on the skins, Teddy Wilson on the piano, Urbie Green on the trombone, Jonah Jones on trumpet, Red Norvo on vibes. The King stood them toe-to-toe for two hours, paid his royal respects to The Sheik of Araby (in 17 eardrumming choruses), savored Honeysuckle Rose, swung low On the Sunny Side of the Street. Near session’s end, Benny decorated him with a new Selmer sax. The King will use it in his own dozen-man modern band, in which he stars (with a onetime Thai Premier and minister to Washington as sideman) in U.S.-style swing sessions that are broadcast from the palace over the Thai radio every Friday night to his 22 million subjects.
The King’s romance with jazz is pleasantly tolerated by Queen Sirikit. For one thing, Bhumibol is monogamous, unlike most of his celebrated ancestors (his father was the 69th child of King Chulalongkorn). “He doesn’t need any more wives,” Sirikit once said with a smile. “For him, his orchestra is one big concubine.”
In 1962, Time magazine ran an exuberantly chauvinist photo-feature on nine “Reigning Beauties”: the most attractive wives of kings or presidents around the globe besides America’s own Jackie Kennedy. Sirikit, of course, was on the list:
The first First Lady by tenure is Thailand’s exquisite Queen Sirikit, 29, who has been on the throne since 1950 and once even ruled the country during her husband’s retreat to a monastery. A dark-eyed, diminutive (5 ft. 3¾ in.) porcelain beauty with upswept blue black hair and lotus-petal skin, shapely (34½-23-36½) Sirikit was placed again in the world’s best-dressed women list this year—after Jacqueline Kennedy and her sister, Princess Radziwill. She almost always wears traditional Thai gowns, and has influenced most other fashionable Thai women to forgo their preference for Western clothes.
Sirikit, whose father was a prince and Thailand’s Ambassador to Britain, was schooled in Europe, where she met King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the only reigning monarch in the world to have been born in the U.S. (at Harvard, where his father was studying medicine), and a great-grandson of the reformer — King Mongkut, who was Anna’s King of Siam. The Queen, mother of four children, is given much of the credit for her husband’s transformation from an insecure, taciturn youth into a serious, socially conscious monarch. Sirikit, by contrast, is supercharged with sanouk, as the happy-go-lucky Thais almost reverently call the joy of living. Once, when asked why he never smiled, Bhumibol waved to his Queen. Said he: “She is my smile.”
Sirikit’s favourite designer was France’s Pierre Balmain, and the two became friends. A typically eccentric news release from Thailand’s Public Relations Department in 2005 said that the incident that had most impressed Balmain was when he somehow squeezed in between Bhumibol and Sirikit in a two-seater sports car driven by the king in rural Thailand. The statement proudly declares:
He said that the look of villagers toward Their Majesties the King and Queen made him shiver. It was the look of total adoration, so powerful that he could not forget it all his life.
In 1965, the magazine wrote that “one of the best advertisements for Thailand’s soft, nubby silk cloth is the country’s delicately beautiful Queen Sirikit, who has her gowns designed by Balmain”; in 1967 it reported that she was spending half a million dollars a year on Balmain alone.
By this time, the United States had decided that Bhumibol had an essential role to play in the fight against communism in Thailand. Using and boosting his image became an integral part of U.S. strategy, as Time reported in a 1966 article:
Seen on a soft spring night, the luminous spires of the Temple of the Emerald Buddha seem to float over Bangkok scarcely touched by the blare of traffic, the neon slashes of bars and the ragged hurly-burly of mainland Southeast Asia’s largest city. So too does the Kingdom of Thailand, proud heir to virtually seven centuries of uninterrupted independence, seem to soar above the roiling troubles of the region all around it.
Neighboring Laos is half in Communist hands, Cambodia hapless host to the Viet Cong, Burma a xenophobic military backwater. The Chinese talons are less than 100 miles away, North Viet Nam a bare 20 minutes as the U.S. fighter-bombers fly from their Thai bases. Everywhere on the great peninsula, militant Communism, poverty, misery, illiteracy, misrule and a foundering sense of nationhood are the grim order of the Asian day.
With one important exception: The lush and smiling realm of Their Majesties King Bhumibol (pronounced Poom-ee-pone) Adulyadej and Queen Sirikit, which spreads like a green meadow of stability, serenity and strength from Burma down to the Malaysian peninsula – the geopolitical heart of Southeast Asia. Once fabled Siam, rich in rice, elephants, teak and legend, Thailand (literally, Land of the Free) today crackles with a prosperity, a pride of purpose, and a commitment to the fight for freedom that is Peking’s despair and Washington’s delight.
The meadow inevitably has its dark corners, notably the less fecund northeast, where Red insurgency is struggling for a foothold. But the military oligarchy that rules Thailand in the King’s name is confident the Communists will not succeed. So is the U.S. For Thailand is that rarity in the postwar world: a nation avowedly antiCommunist, unashamedly willing to go partners with the U.S. in attacking its problems – and its enemies…
Rarer and more precious than rubies in Southeast Asia, however, is political stability and its sine qua non: a sense of belonging to a nation. The Thais have both. Though various ruling officers have come and gone since a 1932 coup gently displaced the King as absolute ruler, Kings and soldiers have combined, in a typical Thai equilibrium of accommodation, to provide a smooth chain linkage of government.
The Thai sense of nationhood is partly the result of never having felt the trauma of colonial conquest. Even more, it resides in the charisma of the throne, reinforced by the nation’s pervasive Buddhism. In Buddhist theology, the King is one of the highest of reincarnations, rich in his person in past accumulated virtue. Even in remote parts where spirit-worshiping peasants may never have heard of Thailand, they are likely to know — and revere — the King.
In an age when kings have gone out of style and the craft of kingship is all but forgotten, it is the good fortune of Thailand – and of the free world – that the present occupant of the nine-tiered umbrella throne, ninth monarch of the 184-year-old Chakri dynasty, not only takes the business of being a king seriously but has taken it upon himself to mold his emerging nation’s character.
In the musical five-tone Thai tongue, his full name rings like the roll of monsoon thunder on the Mekong: His Majesty the Supreme Divine Lord, Great Strength of the Land, Incomparable Might, Greatest in the Realm, Lord Rama, Holder of the Kingdom, Chief of the Sovereign People, Sovereign of Siam, Supreme Protector and Monarch…
Nearly every Thai household boasts a picture of the King. American information officials in Bangkok long ago concluded that USIS funds could not be better employed than in spreading the likeness of His Majesty.
The Time item on Sirikit’s vast spending on designer gowns sparked an anxious exchange of U.S. cables ahead of another visit by Bhumibol and Sirikit to America, in 1967. Clearly, reports about the queen’s excessive spending were damaging to the Thai monarchy’s ability to win hearts and minds both at home and abroad:
Despite his close working relationship with Sarit, Bhumibol remained suspicious of military rule. The indignities he felt he had been subjected to during Phibun and Phao’s regime still rankled him. As David Morell and Chai-anan Samudavanija wrote in their 1981 study Political Conflict in Thailand:
Especially after Field Marshal Sarit seized power in 1957, a definite symbiotic relationship emerged between the military elite that ruled Thailand and the royalty that reigned over it. Each needed the other for continued pursuit of its own objectives. Neither fully trusted the other, but each had by necessity found ways to accomodate the other’s fundamental requirements. Most directly, the military’s continued control over the political process — as exemplified in its periodic seizures of power — could not succeed without explicit or implicit support from the palace. At the same time, the palace has depended increasingly on the military as the guardian of national security and the continuity of the throne itself.
Following Sarit’s death, the relationship between the palace and the military government grew spikier, and Bhumibol grew more confident and assertive in expanding his influence. To quote Morell and Chai-anan again:
The king began to express more openly his interest in the nation’s political affairs. Such indications took a variety of forms, from private discussions with military leaders and businessmen to public statements and increasingly frequent visits to rural areas. In a variety of ways he managed to influence the course of events.
Sarit’s successors at the helm of the ruling junta, field marshals Thanom Kittikachorn and Praphas Charusathien, shared his flair for corruption on an epic scale, but lacked his ability to mostly charm rather than repel Thailand’s people. As Kobkua observes:
Field Marshals Thanom Kittikachorn and Praphat Charusathien, proved no different in terms of corruption and nepotism. They were, to make matters worse, of a definite lower calibre of leadership, and eventually were forced out of office.
Moreover, the massive influx of U.S. cash and troops had a fundamentally corrupting effect on Thai society. By the late 1960s, as Benedict Anderson wrote in his seminal essay Withdrawal Symptoms:
the huge American presence was generating serious social problems — rampant prostitution, fatherless mixed-blood babies, drug addiction, pollution, and sleazy commercialization of many aspects of Thai life.
Bhumibol used his growing influence to curb some of the excesses of military rule. He was troubled to discover during his trip to the United States in 1967 that the Thai junta had a serious image problem abroad: a preoccupation with how Thailand is viewed by Westerners has been a recurring theme of his reign. As Handley recounts in The King Never Smiles:
The king … returned from Washington, apparently, a reborn believer in democracy and good government… The American press portrayed Thailand, after two decades and a billion dollars of U.S. aid, as led by corrupt, inept and dictatorial generals who presided over an uninhibited narcotics trade, a booming sex industry, and unremitting poverty. In Congress the antiwar senator William Fulbright branded Thailand as undemocratic and not worth supporting. The message from President Johnson, too, was that Thailand had to clean up its image, first by getting Thanom to restore the constitution and democratic elections.
The king pushed Thanom and Phrapas to promulgate a constitution, pointedly telling Thammasat University students in 1968 that it would be the last year the country would be without one. Sure enough, a constitution was duly introduced by the junta in 1968, with great fanfare. Time magazine described the event:
As it is for all major public events, the exact time was chosen by astrologers. They proclaimed 10:29 a.m. to be the most auspicious. At that precise moment, trumpets blared and a gold curtain in Thailand’s National Assembly chamber parted to reveal King Bhumibol Adulyadej seated on a special golden throne beneath the traditional nine-tiered umbrella. The King, wearing a white military dress uniform, sat silently while a court official read the royal proclamation. Then he slowly signed three copies of the document, handwritten by official scribes and stamped with the royal seal. As he did so, a 21-gun salute sounded outside, planes of the Royal Thai Air Force dropped flowers, rice and popcorn, and the gongs and drums of dozens of Buddhist temples reverberated across Bangkok.
Thus last week, after ten years of firm though benevolent military rule, Thailand promulgated a long-delayed new constitution and took the first, if hesitant, step toward a return to representative government. Like the ceremony itself, the constitution is more show than substance: it does not necessarily mean the end of the military regime or, for that matter, even of martial law, under which Thailand has been ruled for a decade. Only the day before the ceremony, General Praphas Charusathien, 55, strongman of a regime in which he holds the posts of Deputy Premier, Interior Minister and army commander, had announced that martial law would remain in force, the new constitution notwithstanding; he also warned that any resumption of political activity could only benefit Communist subversion, which Thailand is fighting in several areas.
Politicians and intellectuals, insisting that the new constitution automatically does away with martial law, were upset by Praphas’ announcement. Said the Bangkok newspaper Siam Rath: “Thailand would be a most extraordinary country if we were to maintain this double standard.”
Bhumibol’s pressure for improved governance encouraged progressive Thais to feel that the palace was on their side, and that the king was championing the cause of democracy. By the late 1960s, Bhumibol was frequently criticizing the government for its corruption, and holding regular dialogues with students, and this in turn emboldened others to speak out against the junta.
The irony was that Bhumibol had no intention of pressing for real democracy. He firmly believed in order, hierarchy and enlightened elite leadership, and regarded the messy imperfect world of democracy with distaste. He didn’t want to abolish authoritarian rule, he just wanted the government to do its job better (and to listen to him more). He acquired his reputation as a democrat by accident. As Handley says:
Apparently much to his chagrin… Bhumibol’s criticisms struck liberal Thai politicians, students, and workers as a direct attack on the government. After being repressed for more than a decade, they thought he was blessing a people-power movement…
A whole generation of students had grown up indoctrinated in Chakri mythology, understanding that the monarchy alone had given the country democracy and constitutionalism and was committed to the people’s rights and aspirations. Bhumibol’s criticisms showed them that their aspirations were aligned with royal virtue, increasing their righteousness…
This placed the king in a compromising position, for he continued to support the military-dominated government. The military and the government were the throne’s primary protectors, and he personally liked Thanom, although he didn’t care much for Praphas. With emboldened students, labor, and politicians growing more noisy by the day, Bhumibol seemed to realize in 1970 what had been unleashed. Changing his language and message, he exhorted students to curb their passions, not to imitate their counterparts abroad, and remain patient. Their duty was to study now and change society later, when they were employed. Meanwhile, they should let authorities do their jobs.
Bhumibol wanted honest and competent governance, but was fundamentally against popular sovereignty. In his view, sovereignty and legitimacy resided with the monarch, not with the unenlightened masses.
Bhumibol seems to have feared that his pressure for better governance could put him in danger. As the Far Eastern Economic Review reported in 1974, a strange sense of insecurity continued to stalk Rama IX, even though his political position was well established and secure:
On Sarit’s death in 1963, his successors, generals Thanom Kittikachorn and Prapas Charusathiara continued to use the monarchy to legitimise their regime, but by now its prestige had grown to such an extent that the military leaders were thought to be envious, and relations between them and the throne were not always good. The King reportedly disliked Prapas in particular, while having a kinder opinion of Thanom. Sources who had access to the palace in those years report a persistent underlying fear there of a move against the King. For whatever reason, royal invitations to visit India and Sri Lanka… were never taken up during the Thanom regime.
In fact, it is most unlikely that the throne was in danger during those years. The military rulers needed the royal imprimatur too badly.
In the five years after his brother’s death, Bhumibol had appeared deeply reluctant to return to Thailand. Now, he seemed afraid to leave. The king’s last major foreign trips were in 1967. Since then, he has only spent a single night outside his country, in 1994, when he travelled just inside the borders of neighbouring Laos.
In 1971, the military dictators overthrew their own government in a coup, dissolving the cabinet and parliament and imposing martial law. Bhumibol made no objection. The move only served to deepen animosity towards the regime, and the junta’s position was further weakened by a faltering economy and double-digit inflation. The behaviour of Thanom’s son Narong, who had married Praphas’s daughter, was a particular focal point for popular anger: Thanom, Praphas and Narong became known as the “three tyrants”. The tipping point for the Thai democracy movement came in October 1973: the arrest of 13 student activists brought unprecedented numbers of protesters onto the streets. Up to half a million people packed the area around the Democracy Monument and parliament on October 13, by far the biggest mass demonstration in Thai history. The regime denounced the protesters as communists and republicans, but in fact they were overwhelmingly royalist.
Behind the walls of Chitralada Palace, as protesters rallied in the streets outside, Bhumibol met Thanom and Praphas to try to resolve the crisis and later gave an audience to student representatives. The king believed an incremental and orderly solution would suffice: he extracted from the junta a promise to produce a new constitution within a year — hardly a major concession — and he told the students to get off the streets and end their struggle. But the situation span out of control the following day. On October 14, clumsily aggressive policing provoked violence in sections of the crowd, and then the junta ordered military units to open fire on the protesters. Narong himself fired into the crowd from a helicopter. Students commandeered buses and fire engines and tried to ram them into tanks. At least 70 people were killed in the violence.
Desperately trying to escape the bloodshed, some students clambered over the walls of Chitralada Palace. They were given sanctuary by the royal family. Thongchai Winichakul describes what happened in Toppling Democracy:
Probably the most important act that symbolically defined the monarchy in Thai politics was on the morning of 14 October when demonstrators who were beaten by police in the street beside the palace climbed over the fence seeking refuge inside the palace ground. Then, the royal family in informal dress came out to meet and expressed sympathy to students. By the evening, the military junta had been forced out, thanks to a rival faction within the military that gained the upper hand, and — it is said — to an agreement between the junta and the palace. A grim-faced King Bhumipol appeared on television and declared 14 October “the Most Tragic Day”, and appointed as prime minister the President of his Privy Council.
The “three tyrants” fled Thailand. It was a watershed moment in the country’s history: a popular uprising had succeeded in forcing political change. Bhumibol had never wanted such a radical outcome and had been wrong-footed by events, eventually deciding to help engineer the departure of Thanom, Praphas and Narong to prevent further bloodshed. Yet he won immense adulation for his perceived support of democracy. The protesters had forced the change, but Bhumibol got the credit.
Handley describes how the events of October 1973 became a seminal moment in terms of fostering Bhumibol’s image as a “democratic” monarch who ruled for the good of the people:
October 14 has ever since taken on legendary proportions, in Thai consciousness and in Bhumibol’s own record. To the students of that and succeeding generations, it was an unprecedented people’s uprising against tyranny…
In official histories, however, it was the king who had single-handedly restored constitutionalism and democracy. Rather than credit the popular uprising, later books and articles overwhelmingly emphasized King Bhumibol’s intervention against the dictators, saving the country from disaster.
However it was characterized, the October 1973 uprising marked a new zenith in the restoration of the throne’s power and grandeur.
The brief democratic interlude that followed was fractious, unruly and unstable. It made King Bhumibol deeply uncomfortable. As was to be expected in a country getting its first taste of democracy for decades, the political atmosphere was chaotic and immature, and the dismal economic situation added to the ferment. Emboldened students and labour leaders held frequent protests and strikes. Bhumibol’s natural inclination towards order and hierarchy left him perplexed and appalled by the pace of change and the forces that had been unleashed. As Morell and Chai-anan argue in Political Conflict in Thailand:
When the October 14, 1973, uprising occurred, it was not at all surprising for the king to intervene to end the bloodshed and order Thanom and Praphat into exile. Lacking the king’s support, the armed forces fell from power. However, those who believed that this meant that the royal institution had shifted its support away from the military to the people — and, more particularly, to the students, who had led the people’s uprising — they were soon to discover that they had been sadly mistaken. Instead, the palace stood squarely for law and order, for conservatism in Thailand’s many traditional institutions and values.
Bhumibol’s unease was exacerbated by the communist insurgency flaring in Thailand’s deep south and northeastern Lao regions. The disorder reawakened his tendency towards paranoia and insecurity. A mysterious incident at the end of 1973, recounted in secret U.S. cables, illustrates the extent of anxiety in the palace. In December, Bhumibol suddenly became so afraid about something that he abandoned at the last minute the celebrations planned for his birthday in Bangkok and fled to a remote immigration department rest house in Kanchanaburi province. No sensible explanation was ever given. U.S. ambassador William Kintner cabled the news to Washington on December 4, 1973:
After making checks, Kintner remained baffled. In a cable the following day he noted that the king was strangely troubled by the political situation:
WE HAVE KNOWN AND REPORTED FOR SOME TIME THAT KING BHUMIPHOL IS GRAVELY CONCERNED WITH THE CURRENT UNREST IN THAILAND. WHILE THE LABOR AND STUDENT STRIKES ARE NOT YET IN ANY WAY A SERIOUS THREAT TO THE ECONOMY OR TO THE GOVERNMENT’S STABILITY, THEY GIVE AN UNCOMFORTABLE IMPRESSION OF TURMOIL AND UNREST WHICH FEEDS THE FEARS TO THOSE, WHICH MAY INCLUDE THE KING, WHO BELIEVE THAT DIABOLICAL “THIRD HAND” FORCES ARE STIRRING UP TROUBLE IN THE KINGDOM.
Several more cables from this period show that even the Americans — who themselves were in the grip of considerable paranoia over the spread of communism, and hardly inclined to underplay the threat — were perplexed by Bhumibol’s chronic anxiety. U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger asked the embassy several times to see if Bhumibol would accept an invitation to visit the United States once again. Kintner replied each time that Rama IX was still refusing to travel. During 1975, Charles Whitehouse took over from Kintner as U.S. ambassador. On his first meeting with Bhumibol, the king was full of prognostications of doom:
THE KING WELCOMED ME TO HIS COUNTRY AND SAID THAT I WAS ARRIVING AT A PARTICULARLY DIFFICULT AND DANGEROUS MOMENT NOT ONLY IN THE HISTORY OF THAILAND BUT IN THE BROADER CONTEXT OF WORLD AFFAIRS.
I GAINED THE IMPRESSION FROM THE KING’S MANNER, AS WELL AS FROM HIS REMARKS, THAT HE IS PROFOUNDLY CONCERNED OVER THE EXTERNAL/INTERNAL MENACE HE PERCEIVES TO THE SECURITY OF THE KINGDOM.
As Benedict Anderson observes in Withdrawal Symptoms, the palace and conservative royalists were in a state of “genuine cultural-ideological panic”. The traditional ordered and hierarchical Thai cosmos appeared to have been turned upside down. Students were lecturing their elders. Workers were demanding their rights. New ideas were everywhere. All the old certainties were suddenly up for debate.
Vientiane, Phnom Penh and Saigon all fell to communist forces in 1975. In December, the Laotian monarchy was abolished and King Sisavang Vatthana formally signed his abdication. Bhumibol was horrified. As Robert Kershaw says: “The abolition of the ‘sister monarchy’ of Laos in December 1975 was traumatic to an extraordinary degree.”
During this period, the king increasingly became aligned with extreme right-wing groups. In particular, the palace developed ties to a shadowy group called Nawapol, which was set up by the military’s anti-communist counterinsurgency task force ISOC. It was a secretive cabal of senior members of the military, bureaucracy, judiciary, Buddhist sangha and business elite. A confidential U.S. cable from 1975 described the organization and gave a prescient warning of the potential dangers it posed to Thailand:
THE WORD NAWAPHON TRANSLATES BOTH AS “NINE FORCES” AND “NEW STRENGTH”. IN A MORE ESOTERIC INTERPREATION, IT WOULD ALSO MEAN “PROTECTOR OF THE NINTH CHAKRI KING”, THE PRESENT REIGNING MONARCH. THE GROUP ITSELF TRANSLITERATES THE WORD AS “NAWAPHOL” FOR ENGLISH USE AS AN UNGRAMMATICAL ACRONYM FOR “NATIONS AROUND THE WORLD AND PEACE OF LOVE”. NEW STRENGTH REPRESENTS A CONSERVATIVE RESTATEMENT OF TRADITIONAL THAI VALUES UPHOLDING THE NATION, RELIGION, AND THE MONARCHY. RELIGION FOR NEW STRENGTH LEADERS MEANS BUDDHISM, AN EMPHASIS THAT COULD CREATE ANTAGONISMS WITH OTHER RELIGIOUS MINORITIES IN THE COUNTRY.
NEW STRENGTH ORGANIZES ITSELF ON A CELL BASIS. THIS HAS ALLOWED THE ORGANIZATION SOME MEASURE OF SECRECY AS IT HAS BUILT ITSELF UP…
NEW STRENGTH HAS… IMPLIED THAT IT HAS THE BACKING OF THE ROYAL FAMILY…
IF NEW STRENGTH SUCCEEDS, THE CONSERVATIVE ELITE MAY FIND THAT IT HAS ENCOURAGED A PHENOMENON THAT IT CANNOT TOTALLY CONTROL…
NEW STRENGTH AIMS TO BE THE PARAMOUNT CONSERVATIVE ORGANIZATION IN THAILAND. ITS EMPHASIS ON THE CONSERVATIVE TRIUMVIRATE OF NATION, RELIGION AND MONARCHY, HOWEVER, HOLDS CONSIDERABLE DANGERS FOR THAILAND. THERE IS A DISTINCT POSSIBILITY THAT NEW STRENGTH’S EMPHASIS ON KING, NATION AND RELIGION COULD DRAG THE MONARCHY AND THE BUDDHIST HIERARCHY INTO THE POLITICAL FRAY. IT THIS HAPPENS, THE ORGANIZATION WILL HAVE CONTRIBUTED TO THE WEAKENING OF THE MONARCHY AS A FACTOR FOR POLITICAL AND SOCIAL STABILITY, TO THE ULTIMATE COST OF THAILAND.
Queen Sirikit played a central role in incubating the paranoia and extremism that infected large sections of the Thai elite during this period. Her views were far to the right even of Bhumibol’s, and she had become the dominant personality in the palace.
From her childhood years, Sirikit sometimes dreamed of ancient battles, charging into the fray on the back of an elephant. She came to believe that in a previous life she had been another famous warrior queen, Suriyothai. Sirikit believed it was her destiny to defend Thailand against the communist menace. In The Revolutionary King, a clearly smitten William Stevenson describes the martial bearing she acquired after becoming queen:
Sirikit still returned in her dreams to what she believed was her earlier incarnation as a warrior queen. She consulted her own informants, who were full of stories about plots to bring down her husband. She shot at cardboard targets, saying bluntly that Buddha sanctioned the destruction of evil. Her targets represented live enemies. She was not squeamish… Photographs show her with lustrous black hair tied back, bracing herself against the sandbags, her long slim fingers supporting the rifle or curled around the trigger. She looks like a legendary Siamese woman warrior with a white ribbon around her head.
By the 1970s, the palace was split into two main factions: Bhumibol and his loyalists who favoured a more conciliatory and inclusive approach to stabilizing Thailand, and Sirikit and her circle who wanted aggressive action to crush their perceived enemies. During the fraught years in the middle of the decade, Sirikit’s camp was in the ascendant, and the weaker Bhumibol was pulled along with them.
Another reason for the split in the palace was conflict over the royal couple’s wayward son Maha Vajiralongkorn. When he turned 20 in 1972, Vajiralongkorn was formally designated as crown prince and heir to the throne. His erratic behaviour was already a cause of concern to his father, while Sirikit doted on him and excused his faults. This was to become an increasing source of tension in the royal family in the years ahead.
Many of the leading figures in Nawapol were particularly close to Sirikit, including supreme court judge Thanin Kraivixien. The royal family also played a central role in fostering another far-right movement: the Village Scouts. Nawapol mobilized the elite rightists, and the Village Scouts mobilized the masses. Both movements exalted the sacred triumvirate of nation, religion and king. Bhumibol personally blessed the maroon kerchiefs worn by the Village Scouts, and wrote their code of conduct. The king and queen, and also Bhumibol’s mother Sangwan, were heavily involved in overseeing induction ceremonies for the group in the mid-1970s.
Rituals of National Loyalty, a study of the movement by Katherine Bowie, one of the few foreigners ever to witness the militia’s initiation rites, describes the surreal world of the Village Scouts:
At first glance [the movement] was an unlikely candidate to succeed in the serious business of combating communist insurgency. The main criterion for membership was participation in a rite of initiation that involved five days and four nights of entertainment interspersed with a few didactic lessons. Participants performed skits, sang lighthearted songs specially written for the movement (such as “Holiday in America” and “Smile! Smile!”), and danced such moves as the bump, then popular in the United States, and the duck-waddle dance (ram pet), a unique dance to the Village Scouts that mimicked a ducks waddle. And yet the Village Scout movement succeeded in becoming the largest right-wing popular organization ever fabricated in Thai history.
The movement spun its magic by drawing on the aura of the Thai monarchy. Intoning the nationalist rhetoric of loyalty to Nation, Religion, and King, the counterinsurgency spin doctors deployed the mystique of royalty. A rumour circulated that King Naresuan, a famous sixteenth century monarch who had been victorious against the Burmese, had appeared in a dream to the queen of Thailand, telling her that “Thailand would fall unless the people were united, and that the Village Scouts was the means to unite them”. Combining royal majesty with village beliefs in sacred amulets, the Village Scout designers developed a magical folklore centering on the scout kerchiefs. Worn by all Village Scouts, these maroon kerchiefs were the most obvious feature distinguishing them from the population at large. The kerchiefs, given to each initiate at the close of the five-day initiation rite, were a special gift from the king of Thailand. They were portrayed as having mystical powers. During the course of the initiation scout instructors told of fires in which householders lost their homes and all their possessions except the sacred scout kerchief; amazing the residents retrieved their scarves completely intact from the burning ashes.
These tales, once deployed, fused with existing lore about sacred amulets that protected their wearers from misfortune. The stories developed a life of their own. Scouts also told various anecdotes about villagers who lost their kerchiefs and met with sundry calamities. For example, I heard frequent variations of a story about a man who had left his kerchief on the dashboard of his car. While he was driving, the royal scarf slipped to the floor near his feet. Because the foot is the most vulgar part of the body, he immediately went berserk. His car came to a stop and he ran about the road, hysterical, until some passing villagers found his scout scarf on the car floor. As soon as they picked up his scarf, he recovered his sanity. In some versions the victim ran about naked; in other versions the kerchief fell to the floor in the house. So engulfing and plausible was the realm of ritual magic that the Thai state had created that a participant committed suicide, apparently because he had lost his kerchief, on the first night I attended a Village Scout event.
The Village Scouts were trained to worship Bhumibol and Sirikit like gods, and to show no mercy to alleged enemies of the palace:
In the course of this five-day ritual, initiates were transformed into sobbing masses of humanity, overwhelmed by their new-found love of the Thai nation and their intensified love of the monarchy. This love of nation rendered initiates capable of hysterical hatred, never made clearer than in the murderous participation of Village Scouts in the atrocities against university students on October 6, 1976.
Nurtured in magic, the movement peaked in mayhem.
The royalists also created a largely urban street movement, the Red Gaurs, to act as muscle and intimidate leftists. As with Nawapol and the Village Scouts, ISOC played a key role in setting up and overseeing the movement. Its members were mainly former soldiers, street thugs and criminals.
The withdrawal of U.S. forces in 1976 seemed to worsen the worries of Rama IX and Queen Sirikit. A cable from U.S. ambassador Whitehouse in July, classified “secret”, clearly shows the ambassador’s puzzlement and exasperation about the climate of fear. He recounts a visit from Bhumibol’s private secretary Thawisan Ladawan and Sirkit’s brother Adul Kitiyakara. Both men seemed shaken and said the king was greatly concerned by some unspecified looming danger. Whitehouse was baffled:
I TOOK THE BULL BY THE HORNS AND TOLD THAWISAN THAT UNLESS THERE WAS SOME PRECISE INTELLIGENCE OF WHICH I WAS NOT AWARE, I COULD NOT UNDERSTAND WHY SUPPORTERS OF THE GOVERNMENT AND OF THE KING HAD WORKED THEMSELVES INTO THIS STATE OF ANXIETY. IT SEEMED TO ME THAT THERE WAS NOTHING OF IMMEDIATE CONCERN AND THAT APPEALS FOR CALM AND TV APPEARANCES BY GOVERNMENT LEADERS CREATED AN ATMOSPHERE OF CRISIS WHEN THAILAND SHOULD TRY TO RADIATE CONFIDENCE AND CALM. IT WAS HARD TO BELIEVE THAT A HANDFUL OF LEFTWING STUDENTS AND A NON-ISSUE LIKE THE U.S. WITHDRAWAL WARRANTED ALL KINDS OF RED GAUR/VILLAGE SCOUT/TROOPS ON STANDBY/ POLICE ON FULL ALERT/ETC TREATMENT…
I AM CONVINCED THAT THE PALACE HAS WORKED ITSELF INTO A STATE OF NERVES AND HOPE THAT THAWISAN’S VERSION OF OUR CONVERSATION WILL BRING SOME PERSPECTIVE INTO THE PALACE GROUP, WHICH BY ITS RECENT ACTIONS HAS TENDED TO POLARIZE PUBLIC OPINION RATHER THAN INSPIRING THE CONFIDENCE WITHOUT WHICH CONDITIONS IN THAILAND CAN ONLY GET RAPIDLY WORSE.
Disastrously for Thailand, Bhumibol did not manage to overcome his paranoia, and conditions in Thailand indeed got rapidly worse, with the appalling slaughter of students at Thammasat University on October 6, 1976.
The royal family was intimately involved in the machinations that led to the massacre: exiled former military ruler Thanom returned to Thailand in September with palace support and was ordained as a monk at Wat Bovornives, regarded as the personal temple of the Chakri dynasty ever since King Mongkut had been abbot there. Red Gaur henchmen provided a cordon of security around the temple. Prime Minister Seni Pramoj — the ardent royalist who had done so much damage to Thailand in the 1940s and who had since reinvented himself as a self-declared liberal democrat — tried to pressure the disgraced dictator to leave, and on September 22 parliament ordered Thanom’s expulsion. A day later, the palace showed its true colours: Bhumibol and Sirikit visited Thanom, accompanied by several senior Nawapol members. It was an extraordinary provocation, a virtual declaration of civil war.
As expected, students responded with several mass rallies. By early October, thousands of protesting students had gathered inside the walled campus of Thammasat University on the Chao Phraya riverside north of the Grand Palace. On October 5, photographs of a mock hanging staged by protesting students inside the campus were published in some Thai newspapers; it was alleged this had been intended to represent the hanging of Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, although in fact it had been a protest over the murder of two trade unionists by police in Nakhon Pathom a week earlier.
Spurred on by hysterical radio broadcasts accusing the students of lèse majesté and urging “kill them, kill the communists”, thousands of royalist paramilitaries had massed outside the campus by evening.
By dawn, an enraged mob of 10,000 rightists armed with rifles, swords and clubs began attacking Thammasat. They were met by M-16 gunfire and grenades. Then the troops moved in. Spearheaded by a dump truck that smashed through the main gate, Thai paratroops, border guards and marines rushed in. Peppering the buildings with small arms fire, grenades and anti-tank shells, the soldiers swept through the campus. The toll: 41 dead (only two of them police) and 180 injured. “They were out for blood,” said one Western newsman who had covered the war in Viet Nam. “It was the worst firefight I’ve ever seen.” Huddled in terror on the central soccer field, student captives were stripped to the waist and kicked around by swaggering soldiers. Shoes, watches, eyeglasses and golden Buddha medallions were confiscated. The wounded were left to bleed – drawing flies in the noonday sun, while military doctors awaited “instructions” from their commanders. A few desperate students managed to escape by the Chao Phya River at the rear of the campus. Others who ran for the streets were set on by the rightist mob. Several were beaten close to death, then hanged, or doused with gasoline and set afire. One was decapitated. The bodies of the lynched victims strung up on trees were mutilated by rioters, who gouged out their eyes, slit their throats and lashed at them with clubs and chains.
Newsweek’s report included a quote from a taxi driver who had been among the spectators cheering on the massacre: “I don’t care how many died. They deserved it for insulting the monarchy.”
Prime Minister Seni Pramoj was deposed by the military the same day. The forces he had empowered with his lies and scheming back in the 1940s had consumed him too, and he became a victim of extremist royalism. An overflattering biography of Seni published in 1989, Alone on the Sharp Edge by David van Praagh, briefly records his thoughts on Bhumibol’s role in his downfall:
That brings Seni to the role of the King, over which he like many other Thais has clearly agonized.
After due reflection during one year of being sick, he says in measured words, “I came to realize that if his majesty had not intervened, the country would have gone into anarchy. Due to him — he dared to intervene — the country is not in anarchy.”
On King Bhumiphol switching from support of democratic forces in October 1973 to support of renewed military rule three years later, Seni asserts: “The King didn’t turn about — he was always for law and order. The end result (in both 1973 and 1976) was law and order.”
This is, of course, an absurd reading of the events of 1976: the king had disregarded the law and the constitution, flouted the wishes of parliament, and enabled the terrible crimes against humanity perpetrated at Thammasat University on October 6. But Seni’s comments are correct in one regard — Bhumibol was never in favour of democracy. His priority was always preserving the primacy of the palace, maintaining the social hierarchy, and preventing radical change.
In Political Conflict in Thailand, Morell and Chai-anan discussed Sirikit’s role in provoking the massacre:
The growing influence of Queen Sirikit may also help explain the monarchy’s actions in 1976. Some close associates of the king argue that His Majesty was, in fact, manipulated by the queen’s close advisers, mostly extreme rightists. Reliable sources suggest that the king had preferred not to get involved in dealing with the return of Praphat and Thanom, but that the queen, for her own reasons, had initiated these moves and finally implicated the king in the situation. After the October 6, 1976, coup, several leaflets distributed in Bangkok argued that the Sanidwong family (the queen’s family) was maneuvering to force the king to abdicate in favor of the crown prince, who was said to be under his mother’s influence. According to this source of information, the palace was divided into two factions: the moderates (the king and his close advisors, such as Kukrit Pramoj and Police Major General Wasit Dejkunchon), and the extreme rightists (the queen and her closest aides, including Thanin Kraivichien, Colonel Uthan Sanidwong, and Deputy Interior Minister Samak).
It’s worth adding that the king’s circle was only “moderate” in comparison with the extremists around the queen; both groups were deeply reactionary and fundamentally opposed to democracy.
Sirikit’s influence was also clear in the wrongheaded palace interventions that followed the massacre. Her acolyte Thanin Kraivixien was installed by the palace as prime minister. He proved to be one of the most extreme, incompetent and unpopular premiers Thailand has ever had, as Benedict Anderson observed in his essay Murder and Progress in Modern Siam:
Thanin… a Sino-Thai jurist of eccentric and extremist views, had no political base of his own, and represented no substantial group or institution. His appointment as Prime Minister reflected the conflict between the palace and the generals. The royal family, panicked by the recent abolition of the Laotian monarchy to which it was related, wanted a strong anticommunist, but also a civilian (since it never fully trusted the military). The generals, even more interested in power than in anticommunism, wanted the installation of one of their own. The palace soon prevailed, but not for very long. Ridiculous in its rhetoric, so that it soon became popularly referred to as the Clam Cabinet, the Thanin government quickly alienated almost everyone by its incompetence and ideological extremism.
The reason for the “Clam Cabinet” nickname, Anderson explains, was that:
In an early speech Thanin foolishly compared his government to a tender mollusc needing the protection of the hard, thick shell provided by the military, the palace, and the proliferating right-wing vigilante groups.
The royalists were determined to restore traditional hierarchical authority and rid society of the dangerous perversions of democracy. A statement from the Public Relations Office on November 6, 1976, a month after the massacre, sums up what Thailand’s new government thought about the brief period of political freedom:
Our culture, upheld by our ancestors and customs, was neglected, considered obsolete and regarded as a dinosaur or other extinct creature. Some had no respect for their parents, and student disregarded their teachers. They espoused a foreign ideology without realizing that such action is dangerous to our culture and did not listen to the advice of those who have much knowledge of that ideology. National security was frequently threatened over the past 3 years. Anyone who expressed concern for the national security was mocked and regarded as a wasted product of the bureaucratic society by those who labeled themselves as progressive-minded.
During the dark years after the massacre, thousands of students fled the cities to join the communist insurgents in the jungle. There was a sense of terrible betrayal. Many had thought Bhumibol supported their aspirations. They had been very wrong. A poignant interview with an unnamed activist leader by Paul Handley in The King Never Smiles illustrates the disillusionment and shock felt by the students as they realized by early 1976 that the king was not on their side after all. What makes it particularly interesting is the parallel with the experience of Red Shirt activists who have lost faith in the monarchy in the 21st century:
What we learned is that the king was not above politics; that he was just another political player. We discussed the king’s differences and alliances with the military; and that he could be corrupt. We saw the king as his own player in changing alliances. The more we learned, we understood the issue of the monarchy being overthrown in 1932 and then trying to restore itself into power for its own interests… We discussed feudalism and the sakdina system. We saw the king as a remnant of all this… We saw the king as an obstruction to either democracy or socialism, a force of absolute conservatism. We knew we could not talk about this in public… No one would follow us [and] we hardly ever discussed what to do about it.
In order to bolster support for the palace and preserve social order, the royalists realized, force and intimidation were not enough: they had to redouble their efforts to exalt the monarchy and convince all Thais of its benevolence and greatness. And so 1976 not only saw the beginning of unprecedented political interventionism by Bhumibol and Sirikit: it also marked a dramatic escalation of the effort to put the monarchy at the centre of an idealized myth of Thai national identity, which has continued ever since. As Michael K. Connors writes in Democracy and National Identity in Thailand:
From the lowliest office to mega-ministries, images of the King and royal family appear on bulletins, walls and calendars. The King’s aphorisms circulate in memos reminding kharachakan (the king’s servants) of their duties. His statements lay the basis for thousands of royal projects. This king’s apparent omnipresence has intensified since 1976, whereafter all state agencies have complied in propagating the ideology of ‘democracy with the king as head of state’. This idea had, in principle, informed previous constitutions; after 1976 it became part of public pronouncements to delineate the specificity of Thai democracy. The deployment of the term pointed to prestigious gains made by the monarchy after its rehabilitation under the Sarit dictatorship and its subsequent mediating and crisis-management roles in the events of 1973 and 1976. For those in the know, the term also resonated with Bhumiphol Adulyadej’s newly acquired political power as king. This power had grown as a result of his relatively unscrutinized and shrewd political interventions. If, in the mid-1970s, the fate of the monarchy seemed uncertain, within less than a decade even progressive liberals could not conceive of the Thai nation without its wise king. The divine-like status of Bhumiphol is not part of the family treasure, but something that hundreds of officials in the palace and other agencies have contrived to create…
In constructing and deploying a renewed national identity in the post-1976 period, state actors addressed the people as specifically ‘Thai’, the attributes of which were exemplified by the king… Building a disciplined self/nation was the aim of national ideology.
This intense escalation of royalist propaganda has continued unabated ever since 1976; Thongchai Winichakul describes it as “hyper-royalism”. It required a full-scale retreat from reality. In place of the truth, Thais were relentlessly indoctrinated with fairy tales and falsehoods. To enforce adherence to the fictional official narrative, the lèse majesté law was tightened and imposed increasingly harshly. As Handley explains:
Before October 1976, a lese-majesté conviction carried up to seven years’ imprisonment. This gave judges great leeway, and many people who were accused got off lightly, with suspended sentences or a few months in prison. Many judges understood that lese-majesté had become a political tool used by the right, often without justiﬁcation. Two weeks after taking power, though, Tanin had the penal code amended to assign a minimum of three years’ imprisonment and a maximum of 15 years for lese-majesté. There was a surge in arrests. In 1975, 10 people were arrested for lese-majesté; in 1976, 21; and in 1977, under Tanin’s tough regime, 42. One man was accused of royal desecration for wiping a table with a royally-bestowed Village Scout scarf.
it was not just within Thailand that Bhumibol was desperate to rehabilitate the image of the palace. He was extremely concerned about how the savagery at Thammasat had been reported abroad, and fretted that foreigners would now have a poor impression of the Thai monarchy. Shortly after the massacre, U.S. ambassador Whitehouse met the king’s private secretary, who told him that this was an issue weighing on the king’s mind. In a secret cable, Whitehouse reported their talk:
THAWISAN SAID THE KING HAD ASKED HIM TO GET MY ADVICE ON HOW THAILAND COULD OVERCOME THE FALSE IMPRESSION WHICH HAD BEEN GIVEN IN EUROPE AND AMERICA OF RECENT EVENTS HERE. HE SAID THE KING HOPED THAT THERE WAS SOME WAY BY WHICH THE U S COULD EXPLAIN THAT THE CHANGE OF GOVERNEMENT HAD BEEN BROUGHT ABOUT AS A RESULT OF THE WEAKNESS OF THE SENI GOVERNMENT AND THE PROVOCATIVE ACTIONS OF COMMUNIST-INSPIRED STUDENTS.
I SAID THAT FRANKLY I COULD SEE NO WAY OF OVERCOMING THE WORLDWIDE IMPACT OF THE PHOTO AND TELEVISION COVERAGE OF THE EVENTS OF OCTOBER 6TH AT THAMMASAT UNIVERSITY. FRIENDS OF THAILAND COULD ONLY HOPE THAT THE KIND OF ADMINISTRATION WHICH THE NEW GOVERNMENT WOULD PROVIDE AND THE SORT OF LEADERSHIP IT WOULD GIVE THE COUNTRY WOULD ERASE THE IMAGES OF BRUTALITY WHICH HAVE BEEN SO WIDELY PUBLICIZED. THAWISAN AGREED THAT THIS WAS PROBABLY THE ONLY REASONABLE COURSE TO PURSUE.
One way Bhumibol sought to restore his saintlike image and wipe away the stains of the bloodletting at Thammasat was by cooperating with a BBC documentary broadcast in 1980. Very occasionally during the preceding decades, Bhumibol had given special access to chosen foreign journalists, who tended to dutifully churn out hagiographic feature stories afterwards. The BBC film, Soul of a Nation, was an evolution of this approach: journalist David Lomax and a camera crew were given unprecedented access to the king and also interviewed Sirikit.
BBC documentaries are supposed to follow strict guidelines of impartiality, and interference in the editorial process by outside interests is supposed to be robustly resisted. But this was to be no ordinary documentary: secret cables in the National Archives in London show that the British embassy in Bangkok was heavily involved in setting the tone of the film, working closely with producer Bridget Winter in contravention of the BBC’s code of ethics. The film was shown to Bhumibol and Sirikit ahead of broadcast and they were given the opportunity to suggest changes, again contrary to standard journalistic practice and media ethics. Lomax, who did most of the reporting for the film, travelling to Isaan province with the king and interviewing him in his palace in the Phuphan mountains, was later removed from the documentary team because — as a genuine journalist — he wanted to give a balanced picture and include discussion of important but sensitive issues like the crown prince’s unpopularity. Winter was appalled at the thought and shut him out. Frustrated, Lomax wrote an article for the Sunday Telegraph expressing his view that the documentary would fail to present a complete and honest portrait of the royals. This caused some worried cable traffic between the embassy and the Foreign Office in London; according to the cables, Winter was so outraged by Lomax’s behaviour that she lodged an official complaint about him with the BBC.
Peter Tripp, the British ambassador in Bangkok, clearly relished the special access to Bhumibol and Sirikit that he obtained by acting as a go-between for Bhumibol and the BBC. In a secret cable in January 1980, he recounted a visit to Chitralada Palace the day before to hear the opinions of Bhumibol and Sirikit about their advance screening of the two-hour film. Bhumibol sent warm thanks to BBC producer Bridget Winter, and made a special request for Tripp to find out what “a cross section of ordinary people in Britain” thought about him after viewing the documentary. He told Tripp: “Please ask your friends to look at the film and let you know so that you can tell me.” It was a strangely abject request for a nation’s monarch to make, and once again it betrayed Bhumibol’s anxiety about his image abroad and what people thought of him.
Queen Sirikit was unreservedly approving of the documentary but Bhumibol objected to one paragraph in the script. The details of this paragraph have been censored out of cables in the British archives; a fragment of one cable suggests it may have been a reference to his revival of the archaic rajasap royal language. But aside from this, he was pleased.
The key cable detailing the king’s reaction is below, complete with Tripp’s rather bumbling instructions to London on how to poll some acquaintances of his about their views of the royals, and his hapless request to be sent a copy of the film for himself. The reason the cable is printed on green paper is because it is a censored copy, and paragraph 2 has been blacked out. It is likely this paragraph referred to the contentious passage in the film.
A later cable from Tripp said Sirikit was so delighted with the film that she wanted it to be shown in U.S. movie theatres during her forthcoming two-month private visit to America. Specifically, she wanted it shown in each of the cities she would visit a few days before her scheduled arrival there. As with the king’s request for an informal opinion poll, Tripp dutifully relayed Sirikit’s rather fanciful wishes to London, adding that he thought it was an excellent idea. The British ambassador had been reduced to acting as an informal public relations man for the Thai palace.
Unfortunately for Sirikit, her U.S. trip in 1980 turned out to be a PR disaster. Handley recounts what happened:
Her image plunged further with the spread of a damning underground account of her early 1980 trip to the United States with Prince Vajiralongkorn. The CPT was presumed to have issued the report, in which the author characterized the trip as “67 days, 100 million baht ($5 million), and had enough insider information and accurate details to be wholly believable. The book alleged that the primary reason for the trip was plastic surgery, with a second reason being to collect more money for her personal needs in the name of her charities, and a third to stash palace wealth abroad in case the monarchy was forced to flee the country. It described the queen’s four large fund raisers in different American cities, reaping hundreds of thousands of dollars. Then it detailed her subsequent purchases of two homes in exclusive southern California neighbourhoods for her children, luxury cars for her son’s consorts, and a $200,000 ring for herself. The authors cited meetings with specific New York banks as evidence that the royals were putting assets offshore.
Sirikit’s antics were in stark contrast to the description she had given the BBC’s Lomax of the great strains of queenship. During her Soul of a Nation interview she told him:
Kings and queens of Thailand have always been in close contact with the people. Really. And they usually regard the king as the father of the nation. That is why we do not have much private life, because we are considered father and mother of the nation. We are all the time with the people… We are an underdeveloped country. So the task of mere visiting the people as a conventional duty of the head of state is nonsense. If we cannot participate in helping to alleviate the misery of the people, then we consider it a failure…
To give, not to take, only to give; to love, so that is the reason my husband and I can work, year after year, day after day. We have been ill. But we know that when it is time to die nobody can escape. So it’s better that we contribute as much as we can to society, and reserve some small limited time for us.
Soul of a Nation has interesting parallels with William Stevenson’s book The Revolutionary King and, of course, with the latest royalist propaganda tome, King Bhumibol Adulyadej: A Life’s Work. All three are hagiographies disguised as serious journalistic or biographical projects, produced by cooperative foreigners who were quite happy to toe the official line and avoid digging too deeply into uncomfortable truths. And very tellingly, all three endeavour to lay to rest the suspicions over Bhumibol’s role in his brother’s death. None of them succeed. Bhumibol told Lomax in his Soul of a Nation interview that Ananda had been murdered but that the details were a mystery, hardly an adequate response. Stevenson’s outrageous attempt to pin the blame on a nefarious Japanese spy disguised as a monk was predictably disastrous, and raised embarrassing questions about what on earth Bhumibol had been thinking: didn’t he realize this explanation would never fly? KBAALW went back to portraying the whole thing as a baffling mystery, making a pretence of giving a detailed account of the facts of the case while deliberately steering readers away from the real story. Bhumibol’s obsession with his image, and his repeated efforts to silence suspicions about 1946, reveal his deep insecurities and guilt about what happened. He was tormented by the idea that people might think badly of him. He wanted to be revered.
The Thammasat massacre only accentuated these tendencies. Bhumibol was already haunted by the death of his brother, and the executions of the three men who were falsely accused of plotting to kill Ananda. Now he had even more blood on his hands, and his response to the guilt was to to follow the example of royalist propaganda, and retreat from reality. Bhumibol became an increasingly distant and imperious figure. He started to believe the myths that he was smarter, and better, and wiser, than everybody else. He seems to have dealt with his traumatic mistakes by telling himself they were not his fault. He fought his shame by convincing himself he was superior to other people. And he was consumed by the need to protect his image, to try to ensure that nobody blamed him for what he had done. It brought out some of his less admirable traits: vanity, deceitfulness, a hunger for praise and adoration. He started to believe that because he was a special human being, dedicated to a higher purpose, ordinary ethical codes of behaviour did not apply to him. It was an easy trap for him to fall into because of course, as the king of Thailand, it was literally true: he was above the law.
Bhumibol was becoming more and more morally compromised as his reign wore on, but he believed he was doing the best he could for Thailand. He genuinely cared. He truly wanted to improve the lives of ordinary people. He was convinced that the best way to do so was to preserve the traditional hierarchy and order of Thai society and strive to make incremental improvements to help the poor better support themselves.
During the 1960s, the king’s approach to tackling the communist insurgency was clearly more progressive and useful than the incompetent and counterproductive military strategy pursued by the ruling generals. Bhumibol understood the importance of making genuine improvements in the lives of the poor, and of winning hearts and minds. Particularly with regard to the impoverished hill tribes in northern Thailand and the rural poor near Prachuab Khiri Khan, where a Chakri summer palace and the training centre for the Border Patrol Police were located, Bhumibol showed an interest in implementing practical policies that could win the loyalty of the locals, rather than simply intimidating them into submission through force. The “royal projects”, as Bhumibol’s developmental activities became known, made a real difference in some areas, and they allowed the king to escape the claustrophobic confines of palace life, travel his kingdom, and meet ordinary people. Those he met were often profoundly moved, even more so when they realized their monarch was trying to help their communities. Bhumibol, too, was moved and inspired by the unconditional adulation he received.
But the royal projects have never been more than a fig leaf to make the systematic social injustice and incompetence of Thai governance seem somehow more acceptable. Whatever good that was done must be weighed against the immense damage that most of Thailand’s poor have suffered as a result of the persistent failure to allow genuine democracy and accountability, and the lack of comprehensive and coherent development programmes. Instead of fixing the system, Bhumibol always preferred to work within a corrupt and failing system, so that he could present himself as the sole saviour of Thais. It always had to be about him: he was the source of goodness and largesse. The villages that happened to catch his attention benefited, but across Thailand thousands of other villages remained neglected and impoverished, praying for royal help that never came.
There was always a fundamental amateurishness about Bhumibol’s efforts to help the poor. He was proclaimed to be an immensely wise monarch with a brilliant grasp of science, agriculture, hydrology and development economics. Disastrously, he came to believe that this idealized portrayal of him was literally true. But Bhumibol was just an emotionally damaged and socially awkward Thai aristocrat trying to do some good. In many ways, he was still the gauche and heartbroken Swiss-educated schoolboy who had accidentally become king of a country he barely knew.
In its clumsy efforts to eulogize Rama IX, King Bhumibol Adulyadej: A Life’s Work only succeeds in demonstrating the inadequacy of his development methods. On pages 248-9, in a chapter devoted to extolling the alleged brilliance of the king’s strategy, the book discusses Bhumibol’s working methods and his collaboration with two key members of his inner circle — irrigation bureaucrat Pramote Maiklad, and Sumet Tantivejkul, who has managed the royal projects since the 1980s (both men are on the KBAALW advisory board):
Trips were arranged at short notice, often only a day in advance, sometimes just hours. “The king doesn’t like to make a fuss, setting up tents and preparing,” explains Pramote. On one occasion, Pramote’s team received three hours’ notice and rightly guessed that the king wanted to visit a village on the other side of a stream. They quickly built a makeshift bridge. “The king was surprised because there was no bridge on his map,” Pramote recalls. “I had guessed he would need this to get to the village.”
Many trips and projects were inspired by petitions. Petitioning the king was a traditional form of communication that allowed a monarch to hear grievances and engage with the problems of ordinary people. The Office of His Majesty’s Principle Private Secretary, which receives the petitions, would pass on those related to potential development projects to Sumet’s office. After an assessment of the problem, information might be sent to the king. If needed, the king would prepare a 1:50,000-scale map and carry out initial research before travelling to the petitioner’s area. In Bangkok, he would spend hours in his study at Chitralada Villa, surrounded by teleprinters and communication devices, poring over materials spread across the floor, using his radio to talk to officials, day or night, using his personal call sign. Every day he would receive weather forecasts from the Department of Meteorology. This was his operations centre — and pages were under strict instructions not to tidy up. Nobody but the king was allowed to throw anything into the bin.
The king would often drive himself to the location and walk through the farms, to get a feel for the place and also to show moral support to the farmers. Sumet’s team helped collect information at the site. The king then held a public hearing on the spot — an approach that came to be known as “rapid rural appraisal”. Sometimes people rejected the initial proposal and alternatives were considered. Once an agreement was reached with the villagers and local officials, the king would then turn to Sumet, who managed funding, and say, “Tung ngoen (Moneybags), do you agree?”
This passage displays many of the flaws of Bhumibol’s approach. It was utterly ad hoc and unprofessional: destinations were decided at the last minute, limited research was done, and there was no overarching strategy at all. The description of Bhumibol sitting alone in his Chitralada Palace study listening to radio chatter and surrounded by a chaotic mess of papers is both poignant and damning: it recalls John Stanton’s account of the teenage Bhumibol in his Lausanne playroom, tinkering with gadgets, in the aftermath of Ananda’s death. This kind of personalized, inefficient and unstructured approach is no way to manage a nation’s development. It is the way a precocious but immature schoolboy might try to manage the task.
Bhumibol’s painstaking efforts to make hand-drawn maps of the places he would visit (using pencils that KBAALW adoringly tells us he sharpened himself) illustrate his lack of understanding about how to formulate a genuine development strategy or truly empathize with the people he was trying to help. KBAALW tries to make this sound like a virtue:
On a tour of a project in 1992 with French journalist Jean-Francois Mongibeaux iof Le Figaro magazine, the king spread his handmade maps on a table and explained his approach. “I draw these maps myself. Thus I know the names of all the villages I visit. One has to be simple. Simplify all things. If one entrusts a project to experts, they write up big files, which no one understands. Us, we like to go on the ground, to speak with people, to know about their problems.” Thai society has a strong tradition of hierarchy and patronage, and this working method tended to bypass the traditional order of doing business and contrasted with the way the government ran their ministries and departments. This hands-on work in the fields and highlands also contrasted dramatically with his formal duties in the capital, where the king, during some years, presided over more than 800 ceremonies and official engagements in a year. While court officials in Bangkok would normally speak to the king in the ancient royal language of rajasap, farmers and other commoners were free to talk to the king in whatever dialect of Thai they spoke. The king himself had a good memory for names and faces. In an effort to create a sense of shared experience with people, the palace would send back photos of royal visits to the villages for people to hang on their walls. The visits helped increase a sense of attachment to the monarchy. For most farmers, like many others, an encounter with the king was considered a lifetime highlight.
This passage makes clear the essential theatricality of what Bhumibol was doing. It was all for show: the long trudge through fields and up mountains by the king and members of the royal family, his studied informality, his supposed disregard for bureaucracy and hierarchy, and his banter with his “moneybags” sidekick Sumet. But what KBAALW fails to say is that Bhumibol has always fought to preserve, not undermine, the hierarchy of Thai society. It was Bhumibol who reintroduced the use of rajasap and prostration in formal settings. This was central to his vision of how Thai society should work. He never tried to change the system: it was essential to his mythmaking. He wanted to be seen as a modern monarch who would circumvent the system to benefit the poor and powerless. That meant he needed the system more than anyone.
Bhumibol never seems to have understood that the map is not the territory. His little hand-drawn diagrams demonstrate not the depth of his understanding, but its shallowness. The same is true of his many hours alone in his room listening to shortwave radio sets, and sometimes contacting people via radio with his royal call sign. Daily royal news broadcasts regularly showed the king in a gadget-cluttered study or operations room, poring over maps spread out in front of him or twiddling dials on outdated radio equipment, as if this proved he had his finger on the pulse of what was going on in the country. The Public Relations Department website carries an article by Police Major General Suchart Phueaksakon entitled “The Talent of His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej the Great in Communication”:
His Majesty was deeply concerned and wished to be promptly informed of the real living conditions of his people, so as to be able to provide support and assistance accordingly and in the most timely manner. He realized that radio communication was the best medium at hand.
As His Majesty the King studied basic principles of radio transmission, he came to grasp one very important point, namely the antenna. His Majesty remarked that transmitting or receiving would never work effectively without an antenna or with an inferior antenna, even if a powerful transmitter and a very good receiver are acquired.
His Majesty asked several questions about the properties of the antenna, such as its proper length, and the type and the amount of metal needed. In fact, his remarks led to real development of antennas in the country.
Later, I presented him with two FM-5 radio transmitters, and a book of radio calling codes, or the list of “Wo” codes used in the police service, so as to strengthen his knowledge and experience in radio communication, and accorded him the call signs “Ko So 9” and “Ro O 3.” His Majesty has since used the two transmitters and communicated in the National Police network, where he was known as “Pathumwan.”…
Through these police radio networks, His Majesty has been constantly informed of events as they happen, such as crime reports, fire incidents, and the traffic situation. When His Majesty traveled from the royal residence to perform various functions, traffic was blocked along the route for quite a long time beforehand, causing inconvenience to road users. His Majesty therefore commanded the aide-de-camp to coordinate with the Police Department and allow local police personnel to communicate directly with the Royal Thai aide-de-camp Department on the exact time of His Majesty’s departure and the route to be taken, so that the blocking of traffic could be made for the shortest time possible, so that the general public would not suffer.
This kind of propaganda, with its forlorn suggestion that Bhumibol’s banal comments about radio antennae are somehow profound, and that he cleverly used technology to be aware of what was going on outside the archaic bubble he was trapped in, just demonstrates that he was never really in touch with what was happening in Thailand at all. As Clifford Geertz wrote in his essay Centers, Kings and Charisma: Symbolics of Power, a recurring element of the theatrics of monarchy through the ages has been “the ceremonial forms by which kings take symbolic possession of their realm”:
When kings journey around the countryside, making appearances, attending fêtes, conferring honors, exchanging gifts, or defying rivals, they mark it, like some wolf or tiger spreading his scent through his territory, as almost physically part of them.
Bhumibol’s travels around Thailand for his royal projects, his hours spent monitoring radio chatter, and his pseudo-scientific rainmaking efforts, are all part of a ritualistic, theatrical display by a monarch of his supposed mystical connection with his kingdom and the cosmos. Anybody with genuine understanding of development economics or communications can see that the effort is purely symbolic: Bhumibol could never hope to actually comprehend Thailand this way. But Bhumibol and his circle came to believe their own propaganda. Sumet wrote in Leaders magazine in 2006 that: ” It was soon discovered that His Majesty knew every inch of his land and every detail of his people.” The line between reality and fantasy had become blurred.
Besides the propaganda value, and Bhumibol’s need to feel he was doing something good and important, there was another reason for the way the king approached his royal projects: it was his escape from the suffocating embrace of royal ritual and his unravelling family life. Striding through rural Thailand on his way to assess another project, Bhumibol could feel free for a few hours. His evenings alone making crude hand-drawn maps and listening to radio chatter allowed him the solitary time he needed to cope with the burdens of kingship and his guilt about the past. Fiddling with technical gadgets (or playing with loyal pet dogs) was so much easier than having to deal with the messy complexity of real people and politics. He clung to his maps and his radio sets. It was his way of coping.
The BBC’s David Lomax homed in on this issue in his interviews of Bhumibol for Soul of a Nation. In an Isaan village towards the end of a royal visit, Lomax asked the king about the villagers they had met:
Lomax: Do they have any particular problem?
Bhumibol: No — no problem. They were very happy. And I asked them what temple they were going to, and they said the name… Looking at the map, there is an old temple here, and they did not remember the name.
Lomax: They seem to be impressed with your geographical knowledge.
Bhumibol: Because they are very happy when somebody comes and knows about their village.
Lomax: But you go everywhere with this map, I notice. Not this particular map, but there is never a map far from your hand.
Bhumibol: I try to have a map so that I know where I am going and they are happy when they know that the official map … their village is on the map.
Lomax: Are there some occasions when people live in villages that aren’t marked on the map?
Bhumibol: That is what happened now. There is a village that has no name and I put a name on it.
Later, with Lomax and Bhumibol both seated on the floor of his study in his Phupan Mountain palace in Isaan, surrounded by maps, radios and telex machines, the BBC journalist returned to the same theme:
Lomax: Could you explain what you are doing with these maps please?
Bhumibol: If I see something… you see circles there — places that can be developed. You can see a place there with a red thing. It is for damming and making a small reservoir. Then… the irrigation engineers, I can ask them if it practical to do that. And sometimes they go an inspect the place and have a survey on the spot.
Lomax: Why do you have all these radio sets here — all these receivers, transmitters, telexes? What are they all for?
Bhumibol: Well, communication. I think you should know that a radio is for communication. I don’t have television here.
Lomax: I have heard people say that this is your personal intelligence network.
Bhumibol: I wouldn’t say intelligence, but sometimes it is very… very useful. Sometimes, when you know about the news of some disaster hitting somewhere, you can help them very… very quickly. And then speed is the most important factor. So I get the news via the telex or the radio. Most of what you hear here doesn’t concern me. Sometimes there is a murder somewhere, Sometimes news that they have caught a caravan of heroin, something like that. It is better than broadcasts or other things.
Lomax: When you sit here by yourself for several hours every evening, looking at your maps and listening to your radios, is that because you are a lonely man or because you need to have some time by yourself after all the public side of your life outside?
Bhumibol: That is a question that can be answered in many ways. I am not lonely and I have work to do, so I have to do work. The way of doing work is to have some concentration and some peace and then one can think more clearly. It is a way of preparing myself to be able to do whatever circumstances will have me do. I gather information by listening. I gather information by looking at the maps. or reading, or thinking, and then when the time comes, I have the material in my head.
These are not the responses of a supremely wise and talented monarch with a deep mystical understanding of his people and his kingdom. Quite the reverse. Bhumibol’s unsophisticated answers demonstrate the extent to which he was lost, adrift and uncomprehending, however many maps he drew or radios he tuned into.
Meanwhile, Bhumibol’s domestic life was unravelling further. Tensions between the king and Sirikit over their children were becoming increasingly acrimonious. Bhumibol had been devastated when his favourite daughter Ubolratana had renounced royal life to marry an American in 1972. In the years that followed, the failings of his only son Vajiralongkorn became more and more apparent. Yet Sirikit indulged the prince, and formed a strong emotional bond with him, in stark contrast to the coldness between the Vajiralongkorn and Bhumibol. The dreadful political events of 1976 demonstrated that the queen Sirikit had the upper hand in the palace, and in an effort to bolster the influence of her line of the royal family, she persuaded Vajiralongkorn to get engaged to Sirikit’s 20-year-old niece, Soamsawali Kitiyakara. They were married on January 3, 1977.
One of the many underreported aspects of Thailand’s royal family is the scheming and hostility between different Chakri bloodlines. Many of those in Sirikit’s circle told her she was more royal than Bhumibol: his mother had been a commoner, while both Sirikit’s parents had impeccable lineage. And Sirikit became determined to advance the interests of her branch of the family. Pressuring Vajiralongkorn to marry his own cousin from Sirikit’s family seemed like an ideal way of doing so.
The prince had grown close to the daughter of a Thai diplomat while living in Australia, and discussed the possibility of marriage. But Sirikit was determined that Vajiralongkorn marry Soamsawali for the sake of her own dynastic ambitions. As Handley says:
The prince didn’t like her. He preferred beautiful, clever and forthright women. At 19, Somsawali was plain, dull, timid and not well educated or hugely intelligent. Totally inexperienced with men, she had none of the spark that the prince liked in women. Still, he obliged his mother.
William Stevenson quotes an unnamed royal, a descendent of Rama IV, as saying of Vajiralongkorn:
Queen Sirikit stopped him from marrying a girl with whom he was very much in love. He was a victim of the whole, rotten age-old system of the royal court. He would come and see me and bare his heart. He could not understand why his mother interfered. He became bitter and difficult.
Later in 1977, Bhumibol struck back in his domestic struggle. On the morning of his birthday in December, he elevated Princess Sirindhorn to a higher status that would potentially allow her to succeed him as monarch one day. To some extent, this was an effort by the king to shore up the shaky dynastic position of the monarchy in the event that something were to happen to Vajiralongkorn. But the king’s decision also fuelled popular support for Sirindhorn to succeed him — in contrast to the widespread loathing of the crown prince. This tension persists to the present day, and the controversy still hangs over the royal succession as Bhumibol’s life nears its end.
Sirikit’s plans were ruined when Vajiralongkorn abandoned the pregnant Soamsawali in 1978. He moved in with Yuwathida Pholprasert, an aspiring actress, and was often seen in the company of wealthy godfathers who made their fortunes at the intimate nexus of crime, politics and business in Thailand. Thais began to refer to him as “Sia-O”, a combination of the word for a Chinese-Thai gangster and the sixth syllable of the prince’s royal title. Soamsawali gave birth to a daughter in late 1978, and then in August 1979 his lover Yuwathida gave birth to a son, Vajiralongkorn’s only male heir at that time. Sirikit was appalled.
The attempt by Bhumibol and Sirikit to install a royalist “dhammocracy” in Thailand by appointing Thanin Kraivixien as prime minister was another disaster. The royal family found itself far to the right not only of most ordinary Thais, but crucially also far more extreme than mainstream military thinking. In 1977, the military deposed Thanin amid widespread disgust about his authoritarianism and extremism, and installed pragmatic professional soldier Kriangsak Chomanan as prime minister. It was a startling rebuke to Sirikit’s hardline stance and Bhumibol’s weakness in going along with his wife. During this period, Bhumibol and Sirikit began to place their hopes in a cavalry officer called Prem Tinsulanonda. Dhammocracy had failed. It was time to try Premocracy.
Prem Tinsulanonda was born in the city of Songkla in southern Thailand in August 1920. He like to joke that he spent his childhood in prison, according to his vanity biography, Prem Tinsulanonda: Soldier and Statesman, by longtime Thai resident William Warren:
“I spent most of my childhood in jail,” Prem often tells people, enjoying their reaction, then goes on to explain that this was literally true: his father was warden of the Songkhla prison and the family lived within its high walls.
During the 1933 attempt by royalists led by Prince Bowaradej to restore the absolute monarchy by force, King Prajadhipok fled to Songkla. He was there for a month, and one day visited Prem’s school. Warren says the 13-year-old Prem was deeply impressed by the royal visit:
“I was the smallest boy in my class,” Prem recalls, and perhaps because of that I sat in the front row so that I could see better.” It was probably also for that reason that King Prajadhipok, who was accompanied by Queen Rambhai Barni, selected Prem’s notebook as one to examine during the inspection tour. On the cover of the book, the 13-year-old boy had noted the various parts of the body, as dictated by his teacher, and these the King read aloud. “He said nothing to me,” Prem says, “he just read my notes. But of course it was a great honour and something I have never forgotten.”
Prem entered Thailand’s military academy in 1938 and graduated two years early in 1941: training was shortened because the outbreak of World War II had emboldened Phibun to try to recapture Laotian and Khmer territory that was part of French Indochina. Prem fought as a cavalry officer in the 1941 Indochina War against French troops, although Warren says that he was “not in the front lines with the infantry but in charge of reserve troops at the rear”. After Phibun declared war on the United States and Britain following the Japanese invasion of December 1941, Prem was sent to join the northern campaign to wrest the Shan States back from British-ruled Burma. He was based in Kengtung from 1942 until 1945, and developed close ties with Sarit Thanarat, then a colonel. Prem’s career really took off after Sarit seized power in 1957 and promoted him to colonel in 1959. Under the Thanom and Phrapas regime Prem was elevated to major-general in 1971. Prem also served as a royal aide-de-camp in 1968 and 1975 but spent most of this period based in Isaan dealing with the communist insurgency, where his relatively enlightened approach towards winning the support of the population won widespread praise. His relationship with the royal family deepened after they built a palace in Sakon Nakhon in 1976 which Bhumibol and Sirikit used as a base for several months each year. Prem and Bhumibol developed a close working relationship. As Warren writes:
It was undoubtedly during these meetings that Their Majesties the King and Queen came to appreciate Prem’s unusual qualities of dedication and leadership. Certainly they would prove among his most valuable supporters during the events that lay ahead.
In October 1978 Prem was appointed commander-in-chief of the army, leapfrogging many officers with greater seniority, and in May 1979 he became minister of defense too. Finally, in 1980, with Kriengsak’s administration struggling, Bhumibol engineered Prem’s ascent to the premiership, thwarting the ambitions of Kukrit Pramoj. Handley describes what happened:
On February 28, Kriengsak and Prem flew to Chiangmai to see the king. The next day Kriengsak resigned without dissolving parliament, and a frustrated Kukrit was pressed by Bhumibol to organize the legislature to endorse Prem as prime minister. The change appeared to be democratic, but in fact it was a royal coup. When Prem ritually declared that his coalition was the “government of the king” as he was sworn in on March 3, the statement held a much deeper truth than ever before. He would stay on “reluctantly” for eight years, closely protected by the king’s hand…
Prem… was firm, disciplined, and showed no appetite for wealth and no pleasure in power. He understood that Bhumibol was uninterested in day-to-day administration but wanted someone to act when he issued instructions or voiced opinions. The two shared a belief in a natural Thai hierarchy and the value of social and public order, established and enforced first by example and then, when necessary, by force, not law. During the 1980s Prem fostered a new era of adulation for the throne, a real second revival, with the weight of the military and the private sector behind him.
Once in power, Prem always behaved towards Bhumibol and Sirikit with the utmost obsequiousness. To quote Handley again:
Prem spared no effort to promote the king and royal culture. It began with his own exemplary obsequiousness. He consulted the king at least once a week, in the court fashion of a century earlier, prostrating himself and speaking in a humble whisper only when spoken to. While his predecessors had worn military uniforms and Western suits, Prem made a fashion of a Thai silk, Nehru-collared button-down jacket called the royal suit, chut prarachathan… After Prem’s model, bureaucrats, politicians, and businessmen sought to also consult the king and queen and adopted the chut prarachathan as their work dress. High-society Thais and ambitious climbers competed ever more to be seen donating funds and participating in royal events. They sought to take part in a full-fledged court society fostered by Prem, centered in part in the Dusit Thani Hotel. The Dusit became the site of regular royal charity balls, its restaurants preferred by Sirikit, Prem, and their circle of royally decorated ladies. It became the place for businessmen, politicians, generals, and their wives to be seen and do business.
Prem accommodated the royal family in almost every area possible. He obliged their increasing requests – especially from Queen Sirikit – for promotions of palace favorites in the military and civil service, as well as recommendations for government contracts. Meanwhile, using the state budget he built several more palaces for the royal family, including a massive mountaintop chalet in Chiangrai for the king’s mother, Sangwal, who only in the late 1980s abandoned Switzerland for a permanent home in Thailand.
It was a another symbiotic relationship: Bhumibol installed and then protected Prem, and in return Prem treated Bhumibol and Sirikit with reverence and indulged their every whim. As Kobkua says in Kings, Country and Constitutions:
The premiership of Prem… saw a return of the close King-Premier co-operation and the unassailable position of the King as the supreme and ultimate source of power and legitimacy. In Prem, the King had evidently found his Prime Minister. Prem was famous for his incorruptible reputation and ability to overcome communist subversion in the Northeast. Most important he was known to the King and Queen personally and his credentials as the King’s general preceded him. Prem’s premiership would go down in the country’s political history as the time King Bhumibol willingly overstepped the political boundary of a constitutional monarch and became directly involved in politics on the side of the Prime Minister. It was the time when the King put into practice his own interpretation of constitutional monarchy and re-emerged victorious.
Kobkua’s view that the political interventions by Bhumibol — and Sirikit — represented a “victory” is very questionable: in many ways, the monarchy’s unabashed efforts to protect Prem were to have a damaging impact on the prestige of the palace.
After taking power, Prem issued a decree empowering the military to build a “truly democratic” Thailand. Parliament was given a subordinate role: the armed forces were given legal status above that of the parliament and constitution. Handley explains:
Prem was not all that clear what to do with this power. Beyond the palace-military hierarchy, he had no particular plan. He spent much of this first four years just protecting his job, for which he depended heavily on the king….
The Bhumibol-Prem partnership attempted to institutionalize the idea of a king’s government, and formalize it constitutionally as a palace-army hierarchy. Ideally, the king’s man would sustain the system by promoting similarly loyal professionals into the leadership ranks of the armed forces, and these virtuous generals would become the new princes. Instead, Prem’s rise fueled more corrupt competition for the palace’s favor, and military factionalism and indiscipline only increased. It ironically made Prem-era politics highly unstable, at times violently so. Yet the palace took that as a vindication.
Besides failing to control chronic power struggles amongst competing cliques of military officers, Prem was unable to stamp his authority on parliament. Instability was heightened by Queen Sirikit’s favouritism of some generals, most notably Arthit Kamlang-ek, who had ambitions to succeed Prem as head of the army, and perhaps eventually as prime minister. Palace interventions such as allowing Prem to stay on as army commander past the retirement age of 60 (a move which also suited Arthit’s ambitions) infuriated some of the more professional military officers, who had coalesced into a clique known as the “Young Turks”. In 1981 they launched the “April Fools’ Coup”, an event which once again exposed the extent of royal machinations.
On the evening of March 31, some of the leading Young Turks called on Prem at his residence. They told him they fully supported him continuing as prime minister, but wanted to free him of needing to rely on the support of parliament, which they believed was contributing to corruption and instability. They wanted to get Prem’s support for a coup against his own government. Troops under their command at the Kampuchean border, meanwhile, were advancing on Bangkok.
According to several of those present at the meeting, Prem initially appeared to consider the proposal, then prevaricated, then said he would have to phone Chitralada Palace to discuss the matter. After a short conversation he handed the phone to coup leader Colonel Prajark Sawangjit, saying Queen Sirikit wanted to speak to him. And while the rebellious colonel was on the phone to the queen, Prem sneaked out of his house and headed for Chitralada. With Prem having made his escape, the coup plotters needed another figurehead. They turned to General Sant Chitpatima, whose hopes of promotion were being thwarted by Arthit’s machinations and Prem’s disinclination to retire as army chief. He agreed to lead the coup.
After Prem had reached the safety of Chitralada, the coup plotters were summoned to the palace for an audience with the king. They did not come, fearing arrest. As coup troops seized Radio Thailand, Channel 9 television and other strategic sites, Prem persuaded the royal family to come with him to Korat, 160 miles to the northeast, the headquarters of the Thai Second Army which he had commanded. They arrived there around lunchtime on April 1. Prem began broadcasting from Radio Thailand’s transmitter in Korat, denouncing the coup and declaring that the royal family was with him at the army camp. Thais realized that, for once, Bhumibol was resisting a coup.
The coup leaders, increasingly worried, accused Prem of hijacking the royals. In a broadcast on Radio Thailand, General Sant declared:
General Prem Tinsulanonda, with a wicked and woman-like heart, has taken shelter in the graciousness of the institution of the monarchy, thus involving His Majesty the King in politics. It will be noted in Thai history that a Thai officer has taken part in sabotaging the institution of the monarchy.
Prem hit back with a radio announcement saying these accusations were “tantamount to outright lèse-majesté”, and attacking the coup leaders for ignoring the summons to meet the king. A statement from Queen Sirikit was also read out over the radio, calling for unity. The royal family’s clear signals of support for Prem left the coup plotters increasingly isolated. Some defected to the royal camp. On April 2, planes from Korat air base dropped 200,000 leaflets on Bangkok setting a 3 p.m. deadline for rebel soldiers to return to barracks.
Early on April 3, troops loyal to Prem left Korat to advance on Bangkok, reaching the capital around dawn. They killed one civilian with a stray bullet as they entered the city. That was the only bloodshed. By 10 a.m. it was all over.
What followed was a concerted whitewash by all concerned to obscure key details of what had happened. While the coup plotters were stripped of their military posts, they were all granted an amnesty by the king within a month. Prem and the palace seemed extremely worried about what information could come out if the coup leaders ever faced trial. As Handley says: “Many details about the April Fools’ coup have been obscured by the palace and the participants, mainly to protect the reputations of Prem and Queen Sirikit.”
In particular, suspicion hangs over what happened when Prem went to Chitralada Palace on the night of March 31. Several politicians, including belligerent right-wing royalist Samak Sundaravej, alleged Prem had initially wanted to support the coup, as long as he could get royal assent. But Sirikit, largely because of her affection for Arthit, who would be frozen out by a coup backed by the Young Turks, refused to countenance the plan. It was further alleged that it was Sirikit who was the driving force deciding how the palace reacted to the crisis, in alliance with Arthit; Bhumibol and Prem just did what the queen told them to.
Comments by Arthit about what happened that night support this view: he later said he had sought Sirikit’s support to foil the coup and ensure Prem did not give it his backing. As the Far Eastern Economic Review reported on April 30, 1982: “Arthit went to see Queen Sirikit in order to block the coup attempt. Arthit himself admitted that the queen summoned the coup group in order to get Prem into the palace.”
An extraordinary account of the coup from Sirikit herself in the U.S. People magazine, also lends credence to this scenario. Sirikit is, of course, often prone to embellishment, but she clearly regarded herself as having played the most important role in defusing the crisis:
Queen Sirikit of Thailand was vexed at the interruption of her two-hour evening prayer ritual in Bangkok’s Chitralada Palace last spring. She reminded her retainer in no uncertain terms that it was 11 p.m. If the general on the telephone wanted to talk to her, he could very well ring back in the morning. Minutes later the retainer returned, saying that the caller was insistent. Her Majesty let half an hour pass before she picked up the phone and discovered that a segment of Thailand’s army had captured the Prime Minister and was bent on forming a new government. Troops loyal to the Prime Minister were ready to march on Bangkok, said the young general, if only the palace would give the word.
The response was a difficult one in Thailand, where the monarchy is excluded from politics by law. In any case, the decision properly belonged to her husband, King Bhumibol. But the country’s religious tradition gives the King the status of a demigod; mere mortals are loath to approach him directly. So Sirikit took the Prime Minister’s release into her own hands. Just after midnight she phoned his residence and talked with one of the colonels behind the coup. She told the officer he had 30 minutes to release the PM. If he didn’t, the Queen warned, she would come and free him herself. He was released straightaway and the next day joined the King and Queen in the garrison town of Korat. Later a brief statement from Sirikit, calling for national unity, was aired by a provincial radio station — and within 24 hours the revolt collapsed.
The “April Fool’s coup,” as the New York Times called it, was a dramatic instance of the poise of Queen Sirikit and of the power of the 199-year-old Chakri dynasty of which both Bhumibol and his distant cousin, Sirikit, are members. Peasants fall to their knees when either the King or Queen enters a village. Portraits of them are everywhere. A military coup half a century ago placed constitutional limitations on the monarchy, but the royal family still wields astonishing power. Even in jaded Bangkok, a metropolis of five million, the monarchy is held in such lofty awe that it is often referred to as “the Sky.”
It is also significant that it was Arthit who formally led loyalist troops as they moved in Bangkok, and that they were wearing blue neckerchiefs: the queen’s colour.
Samak demanded the full truth from Prem, declaring: “He was the one who held the secrets in his hands. He went into the palace. I did not know what was said. I wanted him to say that from the beginning he refused to lead the coup.” But with the coup plotters hastily amnestied and a veneer of harmony restored, the truth never emerged. A full-blown attempt by rebel troops to overthrow the government was hastily consigned to history as if it had all just been a minor disagreement.
The whole episode caused boiling resentment in some sections of the military who felt systematic favouritism was being shown by Bhumibol and – especially – Sirikit and Prem. The palace aligned itself with favoured officers and – as in the 1970s – with some sinister groups on the far right. As Handley writes:
The military leadership enjoyed special access in the court as Sirikit surrounded herself with police and military generals, their wives serving as ladies-in-waiting. The most frequent guests at palace parties were military officers, and the generals would take their turns dancing with Sirikit and singing while the king played his saxophone. Politicians and businessmen were rarely invited.
Meanwhile, the government continued to brand its critics as enemies of the state and communists. When at the end of 1982 students held small protests over economic issues, both the Red Gaur and the Village Scouts were mobilized to face them down. Village Scouts were implicated in the murder of a student in Prachuab Khirikan who led a protest against bus-fare rises.
Bangkok was rife with rumours after the failed coup that disgruntled military factions planned to assassinate Prem and Arthit. Prem began getting around in an armoured Cadillac.
Further evidence that problems lurked behind Thailand’s facade of harmony and reverence for the palace was a December 1981 article in the Asian Wall Street Journal by Michael Schmicker, a former United Nations official in Thailand. It had the provocative headline Can Thailand’s Monarchy Survive This Century? Schmicker wrote that Thai monarchists lacked understanding of what was happening in their country and consistently overreacted to pressure for democratization from idealistic student activists, seeing it as dangerously subversive. As a result, the royal family was needlessly alienating more progressive Thais:
They are unwisely being forced to choose between their conscience and their king by misguided monarchists unable to distinguish a sincere cry for social change from an attack on the throne… The royal family is clearly committed — critics say overcommitted — to the preservation of the status quo.
Schmicker also noted that the royal’s family’s actions during the April Fools’ Coup had wrecked their ability to credibly portray the palace as impartial:
The coup collapsed, along with the monarchy’s credibility as an impartial mediator between contending military cliques within the armed forces. The royal family is now dangerously identified with one faction and must accept the sizable risks that come with choosing sides.
He also pointed out the shortcomings of the crown prince:
Since his investiture nine years ago, 29-year-old Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn has struggled to meet the public’s expectations of a future King. He appears to lack the intelligence, charisma and ‘common touch’ necessary to secure the affection of the Thai people for the Chakri dynasty and reputedly enjoys lukewarm support within the Thai military. His image as a Don Juan also has damaged his reputation and allowed critics to poke fun at the monarchy.
The prince’s “Don Juan” image was given global prominence after Sirikit repeatedly raised the issue with journalists during a trip to the United States in late 1981. Horrified that her dynastic plans were in danger of being wrecked by Vajiralongkorn’s abandonment of Soamsawali, the queen took the extraordinary step of issuing public rebukes — and veiled threats — to her beloved son via the American media. At a news conference in Texas, she said:
My son the crown prince is a little bit of a Don Juan. He is a good student, a good boy, but women find him interesting and he finds women even more interesting… If the people of Thailand do not approve of the behaviour of my son, then he would either have to change his behaviour or resign from the royal family.
She told a Dallas Herald-Times reporter that the prince’s family life “is not so smooth”. And two weeks later, when asked in an interview with CBS whether Vajiralongkorn was ready for the throne, she replied:
In his job as a career military man, he’s doing quite well, but for the crown prince of Thailand, not so well, because I think he does not give enough time to his people.
We do not have Saturdays or weekends, you see. And he demands his weekends. Well, he is quite handsome and he loves beautiful women so he needs his weekends.
Once again she warned that he might not be chosen as Bhumibol’s heir:
[The Thai people] know what they want, what kind of leader they want. And if they don’t like such-and-such a character, well, they won’t choose him or her.
This was an incredible way for a family to manage its disagreements. Instead of trying to keep these sensitive issues private, Sirikit was publicly shaming her son.
Meanwhile, General Arthit’s role in suppressing the April Fools’ Coup and his strong backing from Sirikit propelled him up the military hierarchy with unprecedented speed. By 1983, the Far Eastern Economic Review was declaring: “Arthit Kamlang-ek is sometimes referred to as the most powerful man in Thailand”. In March, Prem and Arthit enlisted Bhumibol’s help to circumvent provisions in the 1978 constitution that would have prevented active duty military officers holding political office after April 1983.
In 1983 an English-language treatise about the monarchy, The Chakri Dynasty and Thai Politics 1782-1982, was circulated among academics in Thailand. It was unsigned but widely known to be written by Sukhumband Paripatra, himself a grandson of Rama V and cousin of Bhumibol and Sirikit. It included some incisive criticism of Bhumibol’s leadership:
The monarchy, once a beacon of hope for many in the days of military authoritarianism, is in danger of being perceived as factional, retrogressive and reactionary… The paradox is that by seeking power to guard against disorderly change , the palace may in the end help to precipitate this very change itself… The monarchy is attempting to act as both a symbol of national unity and a power seeker, without realizing that the two roles may be inherently and fatally contradictory… Gone is the pragmatism and flexibility which had been the hallmark of the Chakris.
Sukhumband quite rightly pointed out that while Bhumibol had been perceived as a progressive influence and an ally of the people during the years of military dictatorship up to 1973, he had increasingly become the opposite.
Watts wrote that authoritarian elites in alliance with Prem and Arthit’s faction of the military were trying to strangle the country’s democratic development:
Against all the trends, General Arthit and his Bangkok-based officers are moving Thai politics a stage backwards. The prospect of more democratic rule is steadily receding as the entrenched elites try to defend their positions against the shift of real power to the merchant class…
Those in authority in the past 50 years since the overthrow of absolute monarchy have rarely been able to understand that conflicts are a normal facet of democracy in action. Democracy has been confused with chaos, but in recent years it is the military which has been most responsible for the instability. The public have been mere bystanders at arguments between sections of the military vying for power.
Thailand has never been given a chance to develop a democratic system properly. This time, it appears, will be no different.
Watts went further still. He reported the widespread belief that Sirikit was increasingly out of control, the real power in the palace rather than the otherworldy Bhumibol:
The Queen, her entourage of generals and a few civilian advisers are effectively governing Thailand today through regular dinners at which the King does not participate. The King, weakened by recent illness, has been told by his doctors to take greater care of his health. “The King doesn’t care two hoots about power, but he does want to avoid conflict,” says Kukrit.
Queen Sirkit’s influence and support for General Arthit has been manifest since the general was instrumental in crushing the April 1981 coup. She was a highly visible participant in the traditional bathing ceremonies following the death of General Arthit’s wife from a brain tumour. As one Bangkok wit put it, “We live in Camelot with the Queen and her knights.”
Bangkok high-society was increasingly scandalized by Sirikit’s behaviour too. She thrived on the company of officers in the Queen’s Guard, who were frequent guests at her parties. One of them in particular became a constant companion, ostensibly as her bodyguard: Colonel Narongdej Nandha-phothidej. This became the subject of feverish gossip. Narongdej was later sent to work in the United States, a move widely believed to have been ordered by Bhumibol to remove him from Sirikit’s court.
By the middle of 1984, with the Thai economy entering recession, Prem was coming under increasing attack in the media, parliament and from the military. His health significantly worsened, adding to the sense of uncertainty. Factional struggles in the military, particularly between the Class 5 clique and the Class 7 “Young Turks” led to a series of plots and intrigues. The royal family repeatedly intervened to try to resolve tensions and to signal their continued backing for Prem. In a highly unusual intervention on August 17, the United States also signalled its backing for Prem: ambassador John Gunther Dean issued a statement praising the prime minister for his “moderate, commonsense leadership”.
Instability worsened in 1985, both in Thailand and within the royal family. In May, Colonel Narongdej died in the United States. The official explanation was that the 38-year-old colonel had suffered a heart attack while jogging but it was widely believed, including by Queen Sirikit herself, that he had been murdered. As Handley says, the extent of Sirikit’s public grief over Narongdej damaged her image further:
Supposedly he had a heart attack, but the queen pursued rumors that he was murdered. Her mourning became an embarrassment. For his funeral, which all top officials in the military and government had to attend, she issued a commemorative volume bearing photographs of the two together. Afterward a glorifying television documentary was made on Narongdej, and it also conveyed their special relationship…
In September 1985, Thailand was shaken by another abortive coup attempt by disgruntled military officers in league with Akeyuth Anchanbutr, a brash self-proclaimed financial whizzkid whose Charter Investment ponzi-scheme fund had collapsed following a government crackdown. At least 10 civilians, including two foreign journalists, were killed in sporadic fighting in Bangkok before the coup was swiftly crushed.
Sirikit’s despair over the death of Narongdej was worsened by her realization that Vajiralongkorn would never return to Soamsawali. The prince had fathered four sons by his lover Yuwathida. Sirikit’s hopes of bolstering the dynastic dominance of the Kitiyakara clan were in tatters. She suffered a a psychological collapse, discussed by Handley in The King Never Smiles:
At the end of the year she had a massive breakdown, entering the hospital for what was called a “diagnostic curettage”. She disappeared from public view for six months, reportedly isolated by Bhumibol personally from her courtiers and held to a healthy diet. Gossip spread that she was terminally ill, or might even have died. She finally emerged in July 1986 for the consecration of the new Bangkok city pillar. Somber and unsteady, she disappeared for another three weeks, even skipping her birthday celebration. Instead, Princess Chulabhorn went on television to praise her as a woman of supernatural dedication. “Since her majesty underwent an operation in 1985, she has been getting much better. Now she constantly exercises and even though I am 25 years her junior, I can hardly keep up… If the people are going to get angry because of her disappearance from the public view, it is us [her children] who should be blamed since we always insist that she rests instead of making public appearances… Normally everybody has holidays, but her majesty never had one.” The queen wakes up at 10 or 11 a.m. each day, Chulabhorn added, and works more than 12 hours a day, “If she can’t go to sleep, she will continue working until the next morning… [R]ight after waking up, she never has time for anything else but work…. I have never heard her say that she is tired.”
The princess used the occasion to address some of the long-festering stories and the popular picture of a dysfunctional royal family. Denying rumours that the queen controlled the palace, she insisted: “We all work for his majesty because of our loyalty towards him. Nobody in our family wants popularity for themselves. Everybody is sharing the work and we work as a team… But again, there are people who say that our family is divided into two sides, which is not true at all.”
Despite Chulabhorn’s denial, it was quite clear that the royal family was divided, and that the divisions were widening. There had long been two competing circles in the palace — the king’s and the queen’s. They had disagreed over whether Vajiralongkorn was fit to become Rama X, and over politics, with Sirikit more interventionist and extreme than the deeply conservative but innately cautious Bhumibol. Now they were completely estranged. They have never been reconciled, although they continued to appear together for official events.
As U.S. ambassador Eric G. John wrote in a secret cable in November 2009:
Prior to mid-2008, the King and Queen had lived most of the past 20 years largely apart, joint public appearances excepted. This unpublicized reality started after the Queen disappeared from public view in 1986 for about six months to recover from emotional exhaustion, in the wake of the King dismissing her favorite military aide de camp. Their social circles diverged sharply from then on, with very few figures spanning both camps…
As his family life became more difficult, Bhumibol appears to have begun seriously considering abdication. He shocked the nation on his 59th birthday in December 1986 by hinting that he would soon step aside to make way for Vajiralongkorn to rule Thailand:
The water of the Chao Phraya must flow on, and the water that flows on will be replaced. In our lifetime, we just perform our duties. When we retire, somebody else will replace us…
One cannot stick to a single task forever. One day we will grow old and die.
Palace officials confirmed Bhumibol might retire to a monastery some time after national celebrations planned for July 1988 when he would become the longest reigning monarch in Thai history. Tongnoi Tongyai, a semi-official spokesman for Bhumibol, set out the likely scenario in comments to the Far Eastern Economic Review:
The king will never abdicate, if by abdication you mean leaving his duties behind and retiring… Once his majesty sees the crown prince reaching a more mature age and ready to take over all the royal functions, he may enter a monastery… It does not mean that he will remain a monk. The important thing is that he will continue to be there, behind the throne, and help his son solve any problems.
Many Thais were aghast at the prospect of Bhumibol’s reign coming to an end so soon. In an article for the Far Eastern Economic Review, Sukhumband wrote that “everyone regards rumours about abdication with great apprehension”. But as a strategy for safeguarding the power and prestige of the Chakri dynasty, and coping with the problems posed by his son’s dismal failure to win the hearts and minds of Thailand’s people, Bhumibol’s plan made a great deal of sense. Vajiralongkorn could be eased into the job over a period of years, under the supervision and tutelage of his father, and most Thais would be enormously reassured by the knowledge that Bhumibol would still be working behind the scenes as the kingdom’s ultimate troubleshooter, now overseeing not just Thailand’s political and economic development but also his son’s elevation to the role of monarch. Bhumibol was painfully aware that everything he had striven to achieve during his reign could be wrecked by the shortcomings of his only male heir. By giving up the throne, he would at least gain some control over what came next, and the chance to protect his legacy. Given the circumstances, it may have been the most sensible solution to the predicament of the palace. What remains unknown is the extent to which Sirikit may have forced the decision on him.
In any event, it never happened. Bhumibol changed his mind sometime during 1987. All the available evidence suggests that, for a while at least, he had been serious about stepping aside. The palace has always sought to meticulously stage-manage every aspect of Bhumibol’s reign, and it is inconceivable that a decision as momentous as abdication would be announced without months of careful consideration and discussion, and without drawing up a detailed plan for how the transition would unfold. There are signs that an image management campaign was under way to rehabilitate the crown prince’s reputation – the glossy Dichan magazine owned by palace public relations guru Piya Malakul published two lengthy and sympathetic interviews with Vajiralongkorn, in August 1986 and July 1987, and the prince also spoke to international journalists representing the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand at a special audience in June 1987. He used these media appearances to present himself as a man whose youthful indiscretions were behind him but who remained misunderstood and a victim of malicious gossip.
He acknowledged to Dichan that he was disliked by many Thais, unfairly in his view:
When there is a traffic jam, people immediately say it is because of the Crown Prince’s procession. They say so even if they haven’t left home or are abroad.
Asked by the magazine if he was hurt by his mother describing him as the black sheep of the family, he replied:
Sometimes black sheep serve a purpose, one of helping others. Black sheep help those not-too-white ones seems whiter.
On suggestions the king intended to abdicate soon, Vajiralongkorn insisted he neither knew nor cared about any such plan. His sole focus was serving the country and the king:
I have never heard this talk, and I don’t want to know about it. Any matters about the king are very high matters, higher than me. I am a servant of the king and as such will do my very best to do what he tells me… We should feel lucky to be born in this country. We should be satisfied enough to be close to the feet of the king.
Meanwhile, Prem’s government and the Thai military and bureaucracy were busy planning more than a year of organized nationwide adulation of Rama IX. Events in honour of Bhumibol’s 60th birthday were slated to start many months in advance, and then the country would switch immediately to the build up to July 1988 when Bhumibol would overtake Chulalongkorn as Thailand’s longest reigning monarch. Prem announced that the king would be granted the title of maharaja, officially making him Bhumibol the Great. Only three previous kings in Thailand’s history had received such an honour. The stage was set for Rama IX to bow out in a blaze of glory in the second half of 1988 after a prolonged and massive national celebration of his rule.
But events in 1987 did not go according to plan. In September, Vajiralongkjorn was sent on a state visit to Japan. It was a chance to demonstrate he possessed the necessary maturity and gravitas to stride out onto the world stage with confidence. Given the stakes, things could hardly have turned out any worse. Ahead of the trip, he demanded that Yuwathida accompany him in an official capacity instead of his wife; the Japanese refused for reasons of protocol. Once he arrived, things went from bad to worse, as Barbara Crosette reported in the New York Times:
A diplomatic storm blew up between Tokyo and Bangkok over what Thai-language newspapers reported as ”slights” to the Crown Prince, a pilot and army major general who commands his own regiment, during an official visit to Japan.
A Japanese chauffeur driving the Thai Prince’s car apparently stopped at a motorway tollbooth to relieve himself – Japanese officials say the man felt ill and had to be replaced. On other occasions, the Prince was said to have been given an inappropriate chair to sit on and to have been forced to reach down to the floor to pick up a cord to unveil a memorial. The prince came home three days earlier than scheduled, leaving a diplomatic crisis in his wake.
Worsening the diplomatic damage, members of the right-wing nationalist Village Scouts militia rallied at the Japanese embassy in Bangkok demanding an apology, and Prem dutifully felt compelled to make a formal protest to Tokyo for insulting the prince and the monarchy, despite being well aware that Vajiralongkorn’s claims were totally bogus. Bhumibol finally persuaded his son to make a public statement a few days later calling on Thais to end their criticism of Japan. In the weeks that followed, diplomats and politicans on both sides quietly cleaned up the mess. If this was a taste of how things would be under King Vajiralongkorn, then the people of Thailand clearly had ample reason to be alarmed about Bhumibol’s abdication. By the end of 1987, the notion that Bhumibol could hand over the throne but still steer events from behind the scenes and keep his wayward son under some semblance of control seemed like wishful thinking, doomed to failure.
As Bhumibol marked his fifth cycle 60th birthday, the palace found itself unexpectedly under attack. Leaflets full of scandalous allegations and scurrilous gossip about the royals were circulated widely in Bangkok and across the country, in an obviously organized campaign. Bhumibol and Sirikit were criticized in some of the leaflets but the main target was Vajiralongkorn, who was said to be corrupt, depraved, in thrall to the whims of his highly unsuitable mistress, and generally unfit to ever be king. The authorities were sufficiently alarmed that on December 8, television and radio broadcasts were interrupted by a special announcement by the military and police, which denounced the leaflets as the work of “a group of enemies of the nation belonging to a movement bent on undermining the monarchy”. In fact, supporters of Vajiralongkorn’s abandoned wife Somsawali played a central role in the leaflet campaign, in an effort to fight back against the prince’s efforts to marginalize her and have his mistress Yuwathida officially recognized as queen.
Meanwhile, Prem’s premiership was as precarious as ever, and his government eventually collapsed over several major corruption scandals. In January 1988, Sukhumband wrote another article for the Far Eastern Economic Review warning of dire consequences if Vajiralongkorn were to inherit the throne. He used the usual elaborate circumlocutions that had to be employed in the media to express the fact that the crown prince was a catastrophe:
In post-1932 Thailand, the monarch performs various functions as head of state, but his primary duties are considered apolitical — his role is above politics. But popular acceptance of the monarchy as an institution and of the king as a person, combined with the latter’s role as the catalyst of development, makes royal involvement in politics more or less inevitable.
At the present juncture, the monarchy directly or indirectly, intentionally or otherwise, plays a number of roles which have become integral to the Thai political system.
One is that of the symbol of national unity, essential for a society which, though relatively homogeneous, has its share of cleavages. In this connection, the monarchy also acts as the factor of continuity, when conflicts occur in other political institutions. Since 1932, the kingdom has gone through 13 constitutions, 16 coups and 46 cabinet changes. The monarchy has also become a force of national reconciliation, when extreme political polarisation takes place, as evident from the royally initiated development projects at former communist strongholds.
The second major role is that of the last-resort conflict manager when the stresses and strains of the system reach a point of crisis. On several occasions since 1973, the palace has intervened to restrain military groups which would have toppled the government, caused bloodshed or precipitated unpredictable crises. In turn, this role creates a balance — precarious at times to be sure — among the power groups: military, bureaucracy, political parties and business interests…
Given the monarchy’s role in Thailand’s political and economic development, as well as its place in the hearts and minds of the populace, any uncertainty regarding the future of the monarch inevitably causes a great deal of apprehension. Doubts continue to be expressed, mostly in private but now increasingly in the open, about the crown prince’s capacity to evoke the kind of intense political loyalty from the people and the major domestic political groupings that his father is able to do. Doubts also persist as to whether the crown prince can match his father’s subtle and mediatory role in politics.
All men and institutions go through processes of change and transformation. Bhumibol has achieved a great deal for his country and for the institution he inherited without forewarning, but by doing so, he has set perhaps an impossibly high standard of attainment for his successors. Should the leadership provided by the monarchy become less effective for one reason or another in the future, there will be grave political consequences.
The precarious balance among the major political groups and factions would certainly be destroyed… This vacuum is one which only the military would be capable of filling, given its monopoly of coercive power, organizational cohesion and control of the media and grassroots politics. For many Thais this ultimately is the root of their apprehension.
By early 1988, it had become clear that Bhumibol had abandoned his plan to abdicate. Palace officials spread word that Rama IX would not be stepping down. No reason was ever given to explain why the situation had suddenly changed. By first raising and then dashing his son’s hopes of soon becoming Rama X of Thailand, Bhumibol can only have worsened the conflicts and rivalries within the royal family.
During 1988, Bhumibol completed work on a personal project – an English translation of a Thai version of the story of Mahajanaka, one of the Jātaka tales about past incarnations of the Buddha. It was an allegorical story about Mahajanaka’s quest to reclaim his rightful throne in the land of Mithila from an evil uncle and his subsequent achievement of enlightenment, in which Mahajanaka repeatedly proves his determination and wisdom. Ignoring his mother’s warnings of the dangers and difficulties ahead, he sets sail for foreign lands to raise funds to recapture his kingdom, only to be stranded alone in the middle of the ocean when his ship founders. Refusing to give up — in contrast to all the other passengers who get bloodily devoured by fish and turtles — Mahajanaka swims for seven days in search of land. He is rescued by the goddess Mani Mekhala, whose job it was to protect all those who have done good deeds. She takes him back to his kingdom where he finds his evil uncle has died, leaving the way clear for him to become king. He rules wisely for 7,000 years and eventually attains enlightenment with the help of two mango trees. When he first encounters them, both trees are healthy, but one bears no fruit while the other is laden with exceptionally sweet mangoes. Some time later, he returns to find the fruit tree has been stripped bare and uprooted by greedy hordes who descended on it to eat its mangos, while the barren but healthy tree remains unscathed. Mahajanaka realizes that worldly possessions bring only sorrow and problems and it is better to have nothing. Now enlightened, he gives up his kingdom and his wife, shaves his head and disappears into the wilderness to be a wandering monk.
Bhumibol made two very deliberate changes to the story. In his version, the encounter between Mahajanaka and Mani Mekhala became an extended paean to perseverance. On his seventh day of swimming, Mahajanaka hears a voice asking him what he is doing. He looks up to see the goddess hovering above the ocean, and replies:
O Goddess, we have reflected upon the worldly behaviour and the merits of perseverance. Thus, we conclude that, even though we do not see the shores, we still have to persist in our swimming in the wide ocean.
The two of them exchange more homilies extolling perseverance, with Mahajanaka still bobbing around in the water after seven days without rest. Eventually, convinced that the prince has shown true determination, the goddess tells him:
Anyone who is so full of righteous patience will never founder in the vast ocean that has no bounds. With this manly perseverance, you will be able to go wherever you wish.
Lifting the prince out of the ocean, Mani Mekhala flies him to Mithila, and before departing she urges him to share his wisdom with others:
O Wise One, thy meaningful words should not be lost in this empty wide expanse. Thou shouldst share with others the boon of enlightened wisdom that come from thy lips.
Bhumibol’s second major change was King Mahajanaka’s reaction to the lesson of the mango trees. As in the original, he realizes that a life in retirement, free from the worries that come with power, would be far more pleasant than the dangerous, anxious life of a king:
That tree is still beautifully green, because it has no fruit, but this tree has been cut down and uprooted because it bore fruits. This throne is like the tree with fruits; peaceful retirement is like the tree without fruits. Danger lurks around the one with worries and does not menace the one without worries. We will not be like the tree with fruits; we will be like the one without fruit.
Having apparently resolved to retire and free himself from the tiresome burden of kingship, however, Bhumibol’s King Mahajanaka suddenly has second thoughts, remembering what Mani Mekhala had told him as he struggled to stay afloat in the ocean many years before:
The King could not remember the exact words, for he was exhausted and drowsy from the seven day swimming in the briny water, but he knew she had said he would not find the path to absolute happiness without sharing the wisdom he had found in the ocean. Mani Mekhala had told him to establish an institute of higher learning… Once he had fulfilled this mission he could find the path to peaceful retirement.
King Mahajanaka’s realizes his work is not yet done. He is on a mission from the goddess:
The Great Being thought: “Each one, may he be a trader, a farmer, a king or a priest, has his duty to do. Anyway, before anything else, we have to find a way to revive the fruitful mango tree.”
The original Mahajanaka had been able to spend the rest of his life in peaceful retirement far from the worries of office, after relinquishing his throne, leaving his wife, shaving his head, and abandoning the capital city to meditate in the wilderness – just as Bhumibol had once hoped to do upon his planned abdication in 1988. Bhumibol’s Mahajanaka has no such luck. Because of his indomitable perseverance, and the fact that his calling in life is to share his wisdom with others, retirement will have to wait. First, he has to restore the ravaged mango tree, and cure the people of Mithila of their uncouth stupidity. Then, perhaps, he can take a bit of a break.
The mango tree destroyed by ignorant greed is, of course, intended to symbolize modern Thailand. And at this point in the book the prose lurches into a very different style, from the incantatory language of religious allegory into the attempted bonhomie of a hectoring, practical-minded modern monarch trying to patiently but urgently impart some knowledge to a group of slightly dim-witted subjects. Mahajanaka summons a monk and a couple of disciples to the wreckage of the uprooted mango tree, so he can start getting things organized and give everybody their instructions on what they should be doing:
Udicchabrahmana Mahasala promptly came, along with two disciples, Charutejobrahmana and Gajendra Singha Pandit. Of these two, the first mentioned was an expert in planting, the second one an expert in uprooting. The moment they arrived, Gajendra Singha Pandit threw himself at the feet of the King and said: “Your humble servant is at fault; when the courtiers asked me to pick mangoes for the Viceroy, I used my new automatic fruit harvester, unwitting that it would uproot the mango tree. Your majesty!” The King said: “Do not despair, my good inventive man. The mango tree is down already. Now the problem is: how to restore the mango tree to its former state. We have nine methods for this; some of these could be usable. First: culturing the seeds; second: nursing the roots so they grow again; third: culturing (cutting) the branches; fourth: grafting on the other tree; fifth: bud-grafting on the other tree; sixth: splicing (approach grafting) the branches; seventh: layering the branches; eighth: smoking the fruitless tree, so that it bears fruit; ninth: culturing the cells in a container. Brahmana Mahsala, pray order your two disciples to study the problem and do the implementation.” Udicchabrahmana acknowledged the royal order by saying: “Your Eminent Majesty. Gajendra Singha will immediately bring the machine to raise the tree to its upright station. And Charutejo will collect the seeds and the branches to act according to the royal initiative.” The King ordered the two to hasten on their way, but bade the Brahmana Mahsala to stay on for further consultation.
This is an extraordinary passage because Bhumibol is now explicitly portraying King Mahajanaka as a version of himself. With his practical and knowledgeable instructions on how to repair the tree, Mahanajaka is a mirror-image of Bhumibol implementing his royal projects, full of scientific wisdom. The image of the kindly king lecturing some loyal and eager subjects on the intricacies of horticulture — or urban traffic dynamics, hydrological management, rural economics, whatever theory is relevant — is instantly recognizable to Thais. It is vintage Bhumibol.
But Bhumibol unwittingly also exposes the inadequacy of his schoolboy understanding of what wisdom and knowledge involve. The list of nine horticultural techniques is clearly intended to impress, presented as invaluable specialist knowledge that will solve everything. But it is merely an inventory of methods, bereft of any real explanation of how some or all of them are going to help revive the mango tree. It is rote-learning disguised as knowledge, lacking any analytical content.
Other aspects of Bhumibol’s personality are also on display here: his tendency to belabour the obvious as if he has made some revelatory insight (the key issue here is how to fix the mango tree), and his habitual condescension to those he is lecturing which again often involves belabouring the obvious (the tree is down already, my good man). Compare the 22-year-old King Bhumibol’s comments on the difficulty of taking photographs at royal events, reported by John Stanton in Life in 1950:
Some people think that because smoother-riding open automobiles have largely replaced bobbing elephants on official occasions in Siam, photography has become easier for the king. I suppose that this is, in a way, true, but it hardly touches the core of the problem. The core is that at an official function you cannot very well open a camera and start shooting back at all the people who are shooting pictures of you. Besides, in the king’s pictures there would be no king. Someone once suggested that I might wear a Contax next to my skin and have a little hole in my uniform through which the lens could poke, looking just like another decoration, but this, I think, is impractical. I have tried to solve the problem in two ways. First, I figure out the pictures I want before the function, preset the camera and then ask a friend to point it and push the button at the right moment. This, however, few friends ever do correctly. Secondly, I carry a Contax in my pants pocket and, when a band suddenly blares or something happens to cause the crowd to look away from me, I whip it out, shoot a picture and stuff it back into my pocket again. But it is very unsatisfactory.
It’s the same voice: pompous, finicky, slightly querulous, obsessed with technical minutiae, attempting humour that doesn’t quite work. His homilistic speeches follow the same very recognizable tone, belabouring some points with pedantic thoroughness before meandering off in another direction. The audience is usually baffled, but — like the courtiers in the parable The Emperor’s New Clothes — invariably full of flattery for something that isn’t really there at all, praising the king’s wisdom, wit and knowledge.
The seven-year old Bhumibol came second in his class in Lausanne in annual exams, according to an Associated Press story from 1935:
One can imagine the precocious young Prince Bhumibol impressing his teachers with his ability to reel off a list of facts he has memorized. Decades later, his understanding of wisdom had never really progressed. He could belabour a subject in excruciating detail without offering any real analysis, unable to see the wood for the trees. He could regurgitate from memory voluminous amounts of raw information, detailed itemized lists, technical jargon and statistical data, without exhibiting insight into what they actually meant. He could draw his handmade maps and tinker with his gadgets. It was the showy but superficial intelligence of a bright schoolchild, the second-cleverest boy in class.
Bhumibol lost sight of his limitations. He believed that like King Mahajanaka, he too was a Great Being, a superior soul. He looked down on everybody. His contempt for the country’s uncouth generals, incompetent politicians and avaricious bureaucrats helped make him immensely popular among ordinary Thais, who generally loathed them too. But Bhumibol was equally condescending in his views on ordinary people: he regarded them as feckless, lazy and stupid. He cared about their welfare, he wanted to improve their lives, but he had no respect for them.
The conclusion of The Story of Mahajanaka shows how Bhumibol saw his subjects. Having organized a royal project to restore the maimed mango tree to bountiful health, thanks to his decisive leadership and impressive knowledge of the range of horticultural techniques most relevant to the endeavour, King Mahajanaka’s work is almost done. But one item remains on the agenda. As the story ends, the king announces that in fulfilment of his pledge to Mani Mekhala, he will establish “an institute of high learning” to share his wisdom with the people of Mithila:
We are sure that the time has come to establish that institute. In fact, it should have been established many years ago. Today’s events have shown the necessity. From the Viceroy down to the elephant mahouts and the horse handlers, and up from the horse handlers to the Viceroy, and especially the courtiers are all ignorant. They lack not only technical knowledge but also common knowledge, i.e. common sense: they do not even know what is good for them. They like mangoes, but they destroy the good mango tree.
Bhumibol had so little faith in the intelligence of others that he didn’t even trust their ability to discern the message of his allegorical tale, which was hardly subtle or complex. So when it was published in 1996, eight years after it had been written, the king added a preface in which he painstakingly explained what was already blindingly obvious. First, he informed the reader that the story illustrated the perseverance of a selfless monarch:
King Mahajanaka practised ultimate perseverance without the desire for reward which resulted in his gaining a throne and bringing prosperity and wealth to the city of Mithila by the strength of his qualities.
He then explained the key change he had made to the original tale, to make absolutely sure nobody missed the moral of his story:
Upon arriving at the text concerning the mango trees, His Majesty the King was of the opinion that King Mahajanaka’s desire to leave the city on a quest for supreme tranquility was not yet opportune nor timely because Mithila’s prosperity had not reached an appropriate peak, because everyone “from the Viceroy down to the elephant mahouts and the horse handlers, and up from the horse handlers to the Viceroy, and especially the courtiers all live in the state of ignorance. They lack wisdom as well as knowledge in technology, they do not see the essence of what is beneficial, even for their own good. Therefore, an institution of universal learning must be established.” Moreover, King Mahajanaka also had to advance his thoughts on how to revive the mango tree with nine modern methods.
Bhumibol was telegraphing the fact that because of his selfless devotion to duty and his great perseverance he would nobly continue his solitary struggle to save the country. He believed Thailand would be lost without his wisdom. Like the people of Mithila, the Thais did not even know what was good for them. They depended on him utterly. Or so he believed. Thailand’s king had become bewitched by his own fairytales. He thought they were true. And so, dutifully and wearily, Bhumibol kept going. He couldn’t see the shore he was trying to reach. All he could do was just keep on swimming.
In the end it was not Bhumibol who stepped down during 1988, but his staunch ally and political proxy, Prem. Never deigning to stand for election, he had been Thai premier for eight years of “guided democracy”, in which a fractious parliament and intermittent elections gave a veneer of popular participation in decision making when it fact, the monarchy, military and bureaucracy were firmly in charge. In his “farewell address” to the nation on August 5, 1988, broadcast on television and radio, Prem adopted the same tone of world-weary disinterest in power as Bhumibol (and later, Thaksin too), portraying his years in office as a great personal sacrifice for the sake of the Thai people which he was glad to be able to bring to an end:
As for myself, I have always been modest. I have had no political ambition. I never entertained the ambition of being premier. Being a premier is no fun and tiring. But when I was given the responsibility, I was ready to be tired and devote myself to the work, facing all problems with courage and patience.
In fact, Prem was far from ready to step down as prime minister. He had been all set to carry on as Thailand’s unelected premier until scandals, setbacks and growing pressure for greater democracy persuaded him — and the palace — that it would be prudent to retreat. He had achieved little despite years in office, as Sukhumband witheringly argued in his Far Eastern Economic Review article of June 1987.
After seven years in office, the premier has yet to demonstrate that he has it in him to be a statesman and to silence charges that self-survival is his only concern. Distrustful of democratic practices, he has repeatedly refused to run in any election and to entrust major ministerial portfolios to elected MPs. The substance of his accomplishments consists of balancing one military group against another to maintain his own position. His style of leadership is one of maintaining a royalty-like aloofness from all major political problems and ensuring that criticisms against him are contained at their sources, usually by his military supporters, or diverted towards his subordinates, even those who have given loyal service in the past…
The prime minister’s motto seems to be “The Buck Never Stops Here” and while helping him to remain in office, it has devalued the premiership in many people’s eyes.
Two disasters in particular contributed to Prem’s downfall. His years in office had been marked by widespread corruption, but probably the most egregious scandal erupted in late 1987 when it emerged that for at least a decade, a corrupt cabal of officials had been selling cut-price knighthoods and other royal honours. The scam involved several crooked monks and senior bureaucrats in Prem’s Cabinet Secretariat.
Royal decorations were a crucial tool for keeping palace finances healthy: a donation of $2,430 to a royal foundation could buy a Silver Medal (Seventh Class), while $1.2 million would make the donor a Knight Grand Cross (First Class) of the Most Noble Order of the Crown of Thailand. But the scammers forged documentation to allow Thais wanting a royal bauble to procure one for less if they greased the right palms. Officials up to the level of deputy prime minister were implicated. On December 22, 1987, Chalermchai Buathong, a 54-year-old senior Cabinet Secretariat official who had been interrogated in the investigation, shot himself in the head with a .38 pistol. His suicide note read: “I have been blamed too much. I can’t live.” As Handley says:
The episode revealed just how debased royal decorations and the throne’s magic circle of merit had become. It also revealed how unconcerned Prem, the king’s virtuous premier, had been over corruption.
Yet more humiliation was heaped on Prem and the military by Thailand’s stunning defeat by its tiny neighbour Laos in a border war that erupted in late 1987. Thai troops occupied the disputed border village of Ban Romklao near Phitsanoluk, only to be driven out in a nighttime offensive by Pathet Lao forces. Thailand’s military was heavily involved in logging in the disputed area, and this played a major part in sparking the conflict. In the fighting that followed, more than 1,000 soldiers were killed, most of them Thai. Two Thai aircraft were downed, and Thai planes also accidentally bombed their own troops. A ceasefire was eventually agreed in February 1988. Although Laos had received military help from Vietnam, which maintained tight control over the Vientiane regime, it was a painful reminder that Thailand’s military, while adept at political meddling and shady business ventures, was grossly incompetent when it came to combat.
Bhumibol made sure that Prem was richly rewarded for his faithful service. He was immediately installed as the effective head of the privy council, awarded membership of the Ancient and Auspicious Order or the Nine Gems, and also given the usefully ill-defined title of Senior Statesman. He continues to meddle actively in Thai politics, freed from the exhausting chore of having to be transparent and accountable to the public for his actions. But the era of Premocracy had come to an ignominious close.
Prem’s replacement as prime minister was Chatichai Choonhavan. He was hardly a poster boy for democracy. His father, Field Marshal Phin Choonhavan had been an ambitious and unscrupulous army leader who helped spearhead the 1947 coup that cemented decades of military dominance of Thai politics; his sister had married Phao Sriyanond. During the brutal and corrupt rule of Phibun, Phao and Phin in the 1950s, Chatichai had been made the youngest general in Thai history, and a cabinet minister to boot; the Sarit coup of 1957 led to him being sent into virtual exile as Thai ambassador to Argentina. He returned to Thai politics in the 1970s and served a spell as foreign minister. The New York Times described him as a “flamboyant public figure with his cigar, his glass of wine and his Harley-Davidson motorcycle”. Upon becoming prime minister, Chatichai told reporters: “From now on, you must not call me playboy.” He was also an enthusiastic golfer, as a report in the Far Eastern Economic Review in November 1990 showed:
British journalists were less than impressed with Thai Prime Minister Chatichai Choonhavan during his recent visit to London. At a press conference after his meeting with his counterpart, Margaret Thatcher, Chatichai gave only oblique replies to most of the questions he was asked about such issues as Cambodia and Asean. However, he gave a quick, direct reply when asked about his country’s position on the Gulf crisis. “Yes,” he said, “I will be playing golf this afternoon.”
But the Chatichai premiership heralded radical change in the balance of power and influence in Thailand, from established military and bureaucratic elites to politicians. Suddenly a new cadre of elected politicians, many of whom had links to provincial criminal networks, had control of awarding contracts worth billions of dollars to Thai businessmen for the construction of the infrastructure needed to sustain the country’s dramatic economic boom and rapid urbanization. Chatichai’s ministers quickly became known as the “buffet cabinet” for the unabashed enthusiasm with which they helped themselves to the spoils of office. The government sold dozens of massive new concessions, maximizing the opportunities for rent-seeking by dividing projects among an ill-defined tangle of competing agencies and regulatory bodies. Thailand had — and continues to have — an exceptionally inefficient governance structure, allowing those running the country to maximize the amount of wealth they could extract for themselves at the expense of the population as a whole.
The unexpected shift in political ascendancy from Prem to Chatichai shook the delicate balance of power between the monarchy, military and parliament. Although Chatichai was the scion of a military dictator and had been a general himself, his government wrested power — and, crucially, the vast opportunities for personal enrichment that come with power in Thailand — away from the military and into the hands of a newly emboldened cabal of civilian politicians and businessmen. The generals were incandescent.
Bhumibol made his displeasure with the prime minister clear. In his traditional birthday inspection of the palace guard in December 1990, he praised the armed forces, saying: “The military has done a good job in upholding the liberty and sovereignty of the country.” The following day, in his birthday speech, he was highly critical of the performance of Chatichai’s government.
In Angels and Devils, his account of Thai politics during this period, David Murray describes how parliamentary politicians had traditionally only been permitted to operate within strictly defined boundaries, on the implicit understanding that they would not challenge the prerogatives of the palace and the military:
Although theoretically a constitutional monarchy since 1932, little had changed in the power sharing arrangements. Because Thailand was never conquered by a foreign power, the traditional structures, particularly those of the monarchy, the Buddhist religion, and the military and civil bureaucracies have remained undisturbed… Also, the overthrow of the absolute monarchy was not the result of a ground swell of public demand, but merely the result of dissatisfaction within the ranks of the then existing power sharing elites. Thus, although the coup of 1932 saw the balance of power altered, the ascendancy of the monarchic elites was merely replaced by military and bureaucratic elites. Since then too, the role of the monarchy has been reactivated to return to the power sharing triumvirate. The basic political structure did not need to change to accommodate modernisation and to satisfy the elites. The mass of rural dwellers, too, could be satisfied, as long as the land resource base could absorb continued population growth, and industrialization could provide urban employment for a surplus rural labour force. To add a veneer of political legitimacy to the power structure, from time to time political parties and a parliamentary system of government have been allowed to operate, usually under prescribed conditions whereby politicians and parliament have been relegated to the position of a bit player on the margins of central decision making. As soon as the politicians have overstepped the bounds placed on their role, the armed forces have mounted yet another successful coup and the country has lapsed yet again into a period of undemocratic government. The process has become known as the “vicious cycle” or “vicious circle” of Thai politics.
The Thai military uses the coup as a mechanism to regain or consolidate its own position in the power sharing arrangements with the bureaucratic elites…
Under these conditions, a parliamentary and political system has not had the opportunity to flourish, political parties tend to have few clearly distinguishable differences in policy and no identifiable class-based constituencies, and all important decisions have basically been left in the hands of the bureaucratic and technocratic elites.
The military, increasingly resentful of its diminished clout, issued repeated threats against the government. And, almost inevitably, the generals soon decided it was time for another coup. In February 1991 a junta fronted by Supreme Commander General Sunthorn Kongsompong although actually led by General Suchinda Kraprayoon seized power and arrested Chatichai. Suchinda had long cultivated links with Prem and Sirikit, and was backed by a cadre of loyal classmates from the Chulachomklao Military Academy. Suchinda came from Class 5, which Paul Handley describes as “the most cohesive, ambitious and corrupt class the school had ever produced”
The junta gave the traditional justifications for their coup: government corruption, “parliamentary dictatorship”, and most importantly, fabricated threats to the monarchy. The real reason, of course, was that they resented the fact that elected Thai politicians had the temerity to think they had the right to run the country. As Murray argues in Angels and Devils, “the basic failure of the Chatichai government was that it had tried to break up the balance between the traditional elements in the Thai political system”:
In short, the Chatichai government was accused of retaining more of the “spoils of office” than was considered acceptable, and of becoming so strong that it felt it could take over decision making functions from the civil service and ignore the military, sacking all those who stood in its way – be they civilian or military.
This was a moment for Bhumibol to make a stand in support of democracy. He could have refused to endorse the coup, as he had done in the 1980s to protect Prem. But the king meekly assented. Once again, Thailand was under military rule.
Suchinda promised to clean up Thai politics and then return power to the people — a common theme in successive Thai military coups. But as Federico Ferrara, assistant professor of politics at the City University of Hong Kong, writes in Thailand Unhinged: The Death of Thai-Style Democracy: “The events that followed offered a poignant demonstration that coups in Thailand have nothing at all to do with restoring democracy.”
The junta gained some measure of credibility by appointing Anand Panyarachun, a businessman and former diplomat with a deserved reputation for honesty, as prime minister. It was a decision they would come to regret — he proved far more independent than they had expected. But it quickly became clear that, despite explicit promises to the contrary, Suchinda and his cronies in the military intended to maintain a prolonged grip on power. An investigation into 22 former ministers alleged to be “unusually wealthy” — a key justification for the coup — quickly became compromised as the generals realized they needed the support of corrupt politicians to perpetuate their power. As Murray said:
So much for stamping out corruption… what began as a righteous quest ended in the usual political horse trading between the various groups within the elites, which is part and parcel of Thai politics. In the process, as usual, honesty, integrity, and justice were compromised.
The military was also overseeing the drafting of a new constitution after scrapping the 1978 charter. Its proposed new rules were a severe setback for democracy, with several clauses designed to perpetuate military dominance of politics even after elections were held. By the autumn of 1991, the proposed constitution had become the key political battleground between supporters and opponents of Suchinda’s junta. In November, a front page editorial in the Bangkok Post denounced the draft charter:
Ever since the military overthrew the oppressive civilian regime of Tanin Kraivixien more than a decade ago, we have cherished the hope that never again would our country slide back into such a dark age. Never again, we told ourselves, would the Thai people be treated with such disdain and their democratic aspirations taken for granted by the military elite.
The Post noted that the coup leaders had promised “a new political era under which the next election would be free and fair, politicians would be less corrupt and, above all, a fully democratic parliament would emerge”.
This now appears to be a cruel delusion…
One might question whether it is worth the taxpayers’ money to hold an election which could turn out to be meaningless anyway as the electorate will be spoonfed a ready-made prime minister and a subservient, emasculated parliament, little able to perform its crucial check-and-balance role.
On November 19, more than 70,000 people rallied at Sanam Luang in protest against the proposed charter, the biggest mass demonstration since 1976. A group of students began a hunger strike. A survey in December by the Campaign for Popular Democracy found 98.8 percent of 312,357 people polled were against the draft constitution. Popular momentum was building to demand more democracy.
But then, in his 1991 birthday speech on December 4, King Bhumibol made it abundantly clear that he disapproved of opposition to the junta’s deeply unpopular charter. In a typically rambling hour-long speech he argued that no political system was flawless, and that for a poor country like Thailand, compromise and unity were far more important than trying to create an idealistic constitution based on unworkable ideals about democracy imported from abroad. “If unity is not practiced today,” he said, “there is no tomorrow.” Thais should cease their divisive opposition to the junta’s draft charter. As far as he was concerned, while the proposed constitution may not have been perfect, it was perfectly adequate, and if there were any serious problems with it they could always be fixed later:
If it works well, then stick with it; if it doesn’t work well, doesn’t work smoothly, it can be changed… and opening the way to change it is not difficult.
Three days later, Thailand adopted the junta’s constitution. Bhumibol had once again shown himself to be blind to his people’s aspirations for democracy.
The generals had won the battle, but this did nothing for their popularity. The first anniversary of the coup was a spectacular embarrassment, as Murray describes:
As the anniversary of the coup approached, it was announced that the NPKC would mark the day by publicising a list of its “achievements”. But on the day… Sunthorn led a group of NPKC leaders to offer food to the Supreme Patriarch and senior Buddhist monks. Perhaps they were safer there than anywhere else. There was no television appearance, no public announcement. When asked why a proposed television speech to the nation had been postponed, Sunthorn replied: “The speech is not necessary since we don’t regard today as important.” The NPKC had nothing to say. As the Bangkok Post editorial headline declared, it was “an anniversary best forgotten”.
This deafening silence was followed by the revelation that two days before the anniversary, military aircraft had been used to fly officers and their families… and a band of musicians and entertainers to Surat Thani, some 600 km south of Bangkok, for a reunion party for top generals who had graduated from Chulachomklao in 1957 – the all powerful Class 5. One hotel had its 232 rooms booked out for the event, and 12 Thai Airways International hostesses were on hand to act as “honourary receptionists” at the sumptious affair… The party itself had not been a great success. The joyous mood turned sour when Suchinda’s wife made a public scene when she thought that her husband had become too friendly with one of the entertainers, a former beauty queen.
Elections were set for March 22. In another disaster for democracy, the junta’s proxy party Sammakitham along with three other opportunistic pro-military parties, Chart Thai, Social Action Party and Prachakorn Thai, won 191 of the 360 seats in parliament. Flush with cash, the parties had purchased the loyalty of swathes of Thailand’s professional political class, and used vote-buying networks to great effect. Suchinda remained the effective leader of the ruling bloc, but he had repeatedly insisted he would not seek to become prime minister, and so the winning coalition nominated a pliant puppet, Narong Wongwan, a former agriculture minister under Prem. This plan soon fell apart when the sheer scale of Narong’s criminality became apparent: not only had he been linked to an illegal logging scam, but U.S. officials confirmed he had been denied a visa due to suspected involvement in heroin trafficking. This gave Suchinda the excuse he needed to complete his breathtaking volte-face. He announced that he would step in to save the nation, portraying his move as a great personal sacrifice. In a speech on April 8 to military officers, Suchinda theatrically wept as he told his comrades he had been forced to go back on his word in order to “save the country”.
Suchinda proceeded to name a cabinet filled with cronies, shady politicians with links to criminal godfathers, and several politicians who the junta had only recently investigated for unusual wealth. Duncan McCargo memorably summarizes the odiousness of the entire affair in his paper Populism and Reformism in contemporary Thailand:
Here was parliamentary dictatorship in its ultimate form: a parliament whose election had been orchestrated by a dictatorship, which then presented the premiership to a dictator. The greatest shock of all came when Suchinda announced his cabinet. The very same politicians he had decried a year earlier as ‘unusually rich’ were now sitting around his cabinet table, in a scene strongly reminiscent of the final pages of Orwell’s Animal Farm.
Bangkok’s middle class and the business community were outraged. Most newspapers denounced Suchinda; the Nation said he had achieved “a standard of hypocrisy that is hard to surpass”. The Thai stock market went into freefall; the SET index, around 830 points when Sunchinda became prime minister, collapsed below 700 in mid-May as political turmoil worsened and a pro-democracy protest movement emerged, led by Chamlong Srimuang, an ascetic and eccentric retired major general and former secretary to Prem Tinsulanonda.
Chamlong had been a member of the “Young Turks” from Class 7 of the Chulachomklao Military Academy, but had avoided getting embroiled in the clique’s coup intrigues in the 1980s. He was a committed follower of the ascetic Buddhist Santi Ayoke sect — in accordance with their precepts he and his wife slept on the bare floor without a mattress, ate only one meal a day (vegetarian of course), and abstained from sex. In 1985 he had resigned from the military to run for the governorship of Bangkok, and won.
The first mass demonstration against Suchinda’s government came on April 20, when 70,000 people rallied in Royal Plaza. Rattled, Suchinda appealed to Thais to “play by democratic rules”, seemingly unaware of the hypocrisy of his words.
On May 4, 80,000 people massed at Sanam Luang, and as opposition lawmakers savaged Suchinda in a parliamentary session on May 6, tens of thousands rallied outside. The protesters were denounced by Suchinda and his cronies as communists, anti-monarchists and enemies of Buddhism. They were anything but. Most were staunch royalists and many were from the newly affluent middle classes. As Murray observes:
They were nicknamed “mob mua thue” (the mobile phone mob), “mob hi-tec”, “mob rot keng” (the sedan mob), “mob picnic”, “mob nom priew” (the yoghurt-drink mob) and the “yuppie mob”… Many demonstrators brought with them their own provisions. Instead of bullet proof vests and gas masks, they came armed with bags of drinks and snacks, portable stereo sets and mattresses.
Bhumibol was totally out of touch with the mood in Bangkok. He was staunchly on the side of Suchinda and the military. Handley notes that Piya Malakul, a minor royal and informal PR adviser to the king, devoted his media resources to trying to undermine the protests:
The government tried to stifle Chamlong’s challenge by censoring media reports. Television reported only on cabinet ministers and a senior monk criticizing Chamlong’s behaviour as destructive to nation, religion and king. The king’s media adviser Piya Malakul had his Jor Sor 100, the capital’s popular talk-format radio station, run a barrage of denunciations of Chamlong and protesters. Callers who criticized the government were cut off.
Everybody could see the similarities to October 1973, when mass street protests had been met with a massacre by the military. There was widespread fear that history could repeat itself. Opposition parties, academics and business groups urged the king to intervene to prevent bloodshed. On May 8, Bhumibol had an audience with Suchinda and the leaders of the three armed forces. He told them not to use force to end the demonstrations, but did not press for any concessions from them. He did not meet with any representatives of the protest movement. That evening, 150,000 people massed at Sanam Luang and Bhumibol began intervening more actively: members of the king’s network pressed the government parties to agree to amend the constitution. They announced that they would, but without giving details or any timeframe for the changes they would make.
On Sunday May 10, Princess Sirindhorn was due to travel down Ratchadamnoen Avenue in a motorcade to Sanam Luang for a ceremony to launch Buddhism Protection Week. Following his audience with Bhumibol, Suchinda announced that the area would have to be cleared by protesters ahead of this event. The protesters complied, clearing the avenue and mounting pictures of Sirindhorn, Bhumibol and Sirikit along the route to show their loyalty. But Sirindhorn’s convoy never came. It drove a circuitous route to Sanam Luang, and Piya Malakul’s Jor Sor 100 radio broadcast falsely that demonstrators had blocked the princess’s route. The royals were actively conspiring with Suchinda and the military to undermine the protests and depict them as disrespectful of the monarchy.
Over the week that followed, the pro-democracy movement awaited news of the government’s promised constitutional amendments. They never materialized: it was clear the government and military had no intention of making concessions. The protests flared anew.
On May 17, some 200,000 people filled Sanam Luang. At around 8:30 in the evening, Chamlong led them on a march towards Government House; they were blocked by razor wire barricades at the Phan Fa bridge. Scuffles broke out, and scores of protesters and around 20 police were wounded. Two fire trucks that had been hosing water on the protesters were set ablaze. In the early hours of May 18, the government declared a state of emergency. As the violence worsened, soldiers fired M-16 assault rifles directly into the crowd. Several people were killed; protesters refused to disperse and defiantly raised their hands in the air to show they were unarmed.
In response to government censorship, several newspapers defiantly left blank spaces in their pages. The Bangkok Post was among them:
Early in the afternoon of May 18, Suchinda appeared on television to declare the government had no choice but to use whatever force necessary to quell the violence. Troops moved in to secure the area. But the protesters still refused to give up. Murray recounts the events of that day:
About 10,000 protesters remained milling around outside the Public Relations Department. By 6:00 p.m. there were also 20,000 outside the Royal Hotel. They booed and jeered the troops, waving bloodied clothing and challenging the soldiers to open fire. The troops fired repeated volleys over their heads. By 8:30 p.m., the crowd had swollen dramatically, buses were commandeered to block [Ratchadamnoen] Avenue, vehicles were set on fire, and large cement flower tubs lined up as barricades. The crowds continued to jeer, shouting anti-Suchinda slogans. Troops and demonstrators clashed in battles to control the area in front of the Public Relations Department. At 8:40 p.m., troops opened fire on about 30,000 protesters, and again at 10:20 p.m. On both occasions the firing was for sustained periods, and more than 30 were feared killed. Demonstrators covered the bodies of the dead with the national flag. In a video tape recording, an officer was heard to instruct the troops to shoot at will. The same footage showed a demonstrator who was running away cut down in a hail of automatic gunfire. The number of unarmed civilians killed in the rally remains unknown.
Around 5 a.m. on the morning of May 19, troops stormed the Royal Hotel, which was being used as a makeshift medical centre to treat wounded protesters:
Murray describes the scene:
The whole world (apart from Thailand) saw this “heroic” military action on television. Unarmed demonstrators on the pavement outside were ordered on their faces, and some were trampled on. As the soldiers burst into the lobby of the hotel. everybody was ordered to lie down, and those who were a little slow to respond to the command were beaten to the ground. Bodies were kicked and stomped on. At least 1,500 demonstrators, stripped to the waist, with hands tied behind their backs were carted away in military trucks at 5:40 a.m. A further 1,000 male protesters in the small groups of resistance that remained were rounded up and trucked out by 8:30 a.m. The resistance in Rachadamnoen Avenue had finally been crushed.
The Avenue was deserted. Smoke still curled from the shells of the government buildings that had been burned. Thousands of sandals were scattered about. The scorched, wrecked bodies of cars, pickup trucks, three petrol tankers and seven buses littered the street. The pavements and roadway were strewn with glass.
The world was waiting for Bhumibol to do something. Thais were certain he would step in to try to resolve the situation before the violence got worse. But the palace was silent.
Even after the bloody clearing of Ratchadamnoen Avenue, the protesters refused to be broken. In the evening of May 19, they rallied at Ramkhanghaeng University in the east of the capital. By midnight, 50,000 people were gathered there. Despite attempts to shut them down, some Thai media defied restrictions to bravely report what was happening. More — and far worse — carnage seemed certain.
The Nation newspaper’s front page on May 20 was bordered in black, with a quotation from William Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of King Lear:
Across Thailand and around the world, Bhumibol’s failure to intervene seemed increasingly troubling and incomprehensible. It was widely assumed that the military must be holding him incommunicado and preventing him from speaking out. As Time magazine reported:
Bangkok… was no longer a capital of prosperity. It was a city in shock – numbed by tumult, appalled at wholesale death in the streets and raging at a Prime Minister who had become the most hated man in Thailand. Throughout those three days, people looked imploringly to Chitralada Palace and the one figure capable of intervening decisively. Their long wait had begun to convince many Thais that King Bhumibol… could not risk squandering his moral authority when words might not matter. Soldiers were at war with civilians. Both sides were digging in. A nation that had been basking in the sunlight of economic success looked headed for eclipse in further nights of the generals.
Finally, on May 20, the palace acted. At 6 a.m., Princess Sirindhorn, the most beloved royal after Bhumibol himself, appeared on television pleading for the killing to stop. Her intervention made the front pages of afternoon newspapers. At 9:30 p.m., Bhumibol summoned Chamlong and Suchinda. What happened next became the stuff of legend.
With Suchinda and Chamlong kneeling submissively on the floor, Bhumibol lectured them in a soft but stern voice, telling them to stop their confrontation and settle their differences peacefully. A partial translation of his comments appears in KBAALW:
It may not be a surprise as to why I asked you to come to this meeting. Everyone knows how confused the situation is and that it may well lead the country to complete ruin. I would request especially the two of you, General Suchinda and Major General Chamlomg, to sit down and consider together in a conciliatory manner and not in a confrontational manner, a way to solve the problem, because our country does not belong to any one or two persons, but belongs to everyone. Therefore, we must cooperate with one another and not confront one another, because the danger is that when people get in a state of blind fury and act in uncontrolled violence, they will not even know what they are fighting about or how to solve the problem. They will only know that they must win.
But can there ever be a winner? Of course not. It is so very dangerous. There will only be losers — that is, everyone is a loser, each side in the confrontation is a loser… If a great destruction occurs in Bangkok, then the country as a whole is also destroyed. In such a case, what is the point of anyone feeling proud to be the winner, when standing on a pile of ruins and rubble?
The footage was shown on Thai television at midnight and broadcast around the world. The effect was immediate. Soldiers returned to barracks and protesters returned home. Suchinda and Chamlong announced they would work together to resolve the situation without further bloodshed.
Bhumibol’s intervention in 1992 is widely regarded at home and abroad as the defining proof of his greatness, and it remains the most enduring single memory of his reign. In the words of Maurizio Peleggi, associate professor at the National University of Singapore, in his paper Semiotics of Rama IX:
By the early 1990s signs of Rama IX’s incipient apotheosis were aplenty, but none more eloquent than the televised royal audience on 20 May 1992… Fifty million TV spectators watched Suchinda and Chamlong kneeling at the king’s feet… and humbly receiving the royal admonition to take a step back and stop the violence in the streets.
In an editorial the following day, the Washington Post was effusive in its praise:
Who will soon forget the remarkable picture of the military ruler and the opposition leader together on their knees before the king of Thailand? Summoning up the impartiality and sense of national essence that he has cultivated for 42 years on an otherwise powerless throne, King Bhumibol Adulyadej was able at least to ease the immediate confrontation between Suchinda Kraprayoon, the general who is prime minister, and Chamlong Srimuang, the former general who leads the opposition. At once Thailand’s boiling crisis was moved from the streets to the political bargaining table.
Like so many other highlights of royal folklore, however, the official story of Bhumibol’s dramatic intervention fails to give an accurate account of what had happened. The king had been supportive of Suchinda and the military throughout, and had used his 1991 birthday speech to undermine demands for a more democratic constitution. His repeated insistence that the charter could always be changed later if there were problems was naive and unrealistic. He had failed to gauge the public mood in Bangkok, and failed to put any genuine pressure on Suchinda to act more honourably. When protests flared again in April and May, Bhumibol was aghast, and his ally Piya Malakul had campaigned to smear and undercut the pro-democracy movement.
Bhumibol had also remained silent for three agonizing days after May 17 as civilians were massacred on the streets of Bangkok. The official explanation has always been that Bhumibol could not risk acting too early: he had to wait until he could be sure that his intervention would succeed. Kobkua Suwannathat-Pian, for example, writes in Kings, Country and Constitutions that: “Job well done rather than job hastily done appeared to be King Bhumibol’s principle of royal operation.” Yet this view is, at best, very questionable. While we have the luxury of hindsight that the king did not possess at the time, was it really necessary to wait until the death toll had risen so high to improve the chances his intervention would work?
Bhumibol’s comments to Suchinda and Chamlong on May 20 made clear that he regarded the protesters, not the military, as primarily to blame for the bloodshed. He said the military had already agreed that the constitution could be amended, implying that the democracy movement had been provocative and irresponsible for failing to trust Suchinda. He only referred to democracy once in his comments, calling it “so-called democracy”.
Just as in 1973, Bhumibol had been firmly committed to propping up a despised government, and hostile to popular pressure for political change. Just as in 1973, he found himself unwillingly forced to intervene after the military threw off all restraint and began gunning down civilians in the streets. And just as in 1973, he found himself exalted as the defender of Thai democracy when in fact that had never been his intention at all.
Suchinda initially believed he could continue as prime minister. It was only after further public outcry that he finally stepped down on May 24, after securing an amnesty for all those involved in the violence. Even then, the coalition parties stubbornly held their ground, announcing they would nominate Air Chief Marshal Somboon Rahong as prime minister. Somboon was another crony of the Class 5 coup leaders, and would have made a dangerously divisive prime minister. But his parliamentary allies refused to compromise on another nominee. The palace stalled for time, delaying official acceptance of the nomination, and using Prem and others to press for another candidate. But by June 10, the decision could be delayed no longer. Confident of becoming the next prime minister, Somboon invited hundreds of friends and Chart Thai members to his house, dressed in their white official uniforms, with champagne on ice, ready to celebrate. Shortly after 7 p.m., the phone rang. Somboon’s face crumpled. The king had named Anand Panyarachun as interim prime minister. Murray describes the scene:
The party members were hushed and grim faced. To add to their embarrassment, when the reporters present heard the news, most clapped their hands and shouted for joy. Somboon claimed he was “relieved”, and went upstairs to change into normal clothes. The party was over.
Anand was a highly popular choice, despite the fact that in neither of his terms as prime minister was he actually elected. The king’s intervention to get him installed left the military and allied politicians fuming, but helped steer Thailand away from another round of confrontation and towards political reform. It also, however, raised more questions about his role and powers. Bhumibol’s dramatic intervention in May could be seen as the king exercising his right to advise political leaders — advice that they are free, in theory, to ignore if they choose. But in June he overstepped multiple constitutional bounds by actually overruling parliament’s choice of prime minister and picking his own. The constitutional niceties were taken care of through the pretence that it had been the idea of parliament’s speaker to submit Anand’s name in place of Somboon’s, as he was in theory entitled to do, and that Bhumibol had merely approved the nomination. Everybody knew the reality was different. And even Bhumibol’s staunch royalist supporters realized that things would have to change.
As his reign had progressed, Bhumibol had sought to impose his authority on Thailand by ruling via proxy prime ministers who he trusted to do his bidding — first Thanin Kraivixien in 1976-77 and then Prem Tinsulanonda in 1980-88. But given popular aspirations for democracy, and the palace’s pretence that it supported them, a more subtle system was needed. The more extremist royalists in Sirikit’s circle never accepted this, of course, believing that the palace could and should openly dominate Thai politics. But key members of Bhumibol’s circle favoured an approach in which a network of loyal royalists would govern on the kings behalf, using their positions of authority to shape Thailand in accordance with Rama IX’s wishes. In his seminal 2005 paper Network monarchy and legitimacy crises in Thailand, one of the most illuminating and influential analyses of contemporary Thai politics, Leeds University professor Duncan McCargo describes the evolution of Bhumibol’s thinking:
The royal family continued to display an excessive partiality for the military, rather than promoting reconciliation and unity. Nevertheless, the King gradually learned an important lesson: network monarchy had to involve pragmatic compromises with sleazy politicians, had to employ a degree of structural violence, and had to involve the politics of alliance building. However, building these alliances was no job for a royal head of state. The King needed a proxy who could manage his network. Indeed, there was no need for the monarch to have much direct involvement in the running of the country. With the right manager in place, the network would run itself; the monarch need only intervene personally in times of crisis, or when he had a particular message to communicate…
From 1980 onwards, the manager of Thailand’s network monarchy was in place: Prem Tinsulanond, handpicked by the King as army commander and later prime minister. His installation as prime minister might have appeared democratic, but was actually a ‘royal coup’. Prem could never replace his beloved Sarit, yet the King trusted Prem absolutely, seeing him as an incorruptible ﬁgure who shared his soft and understated approach, but who was a skilled alliance-builder and wielder of patronage. For the next twenty-one years, Prem served effectively as Thailand’s ‘director of human resources’, masterminding appointments, transfers and promotions. Prem’s power was never absolute, though it was always considerable. He served as prime minister until 1988, then immediately became a privy councillor and senior statesman, succeeding to the presidency of the Privy Council in 1998.
McCargo describes the defining features of “network monarch” as follows:
The monarch was the ultimate arbiter of political decisions in times of crisis; the monarchy was the primary source of national legitimacy; the King acted as a didactic commentator on national issues, helping to set the national agenda, especially through his annual birthday speeches; the monarch intervened actively in political developments, largely by working through proxies such as privy councillors and trusted military figures… At heart, network governance of this kind relied on placing the right people (mainly, the right men) in the right jobs…
Network monarchy is inherently illiberal, because it advocates reliance on ‘good men’, and the marginalization of formal political institutions or procedures. Low priority is given to democratic principles such as the rule of law and popular sovereignty …
During Chatichai’s government of 1988-91, the royal network found itself with limited influence, and this helps explains Bhumibol’s backing for a reimposition of military rule. But when Suchinda’s government collapsed amid popular fury in May 1992, it was clear to more progressive members of Bhumibol’s inner circle that the system would have to be reformed to reduce the king’s reliance on the military. As McCargo argues:
While the May 1992 protests were clearly not scripted by the palace, the belated and fuzzy royal intervention that ended the bloodshed and led to Suchinda’s resignation was subsequently mythologized into a triumph for the monarchy. The three-day delay in the king’s actions was never explained convincingly… Despite the general view that the violence of May 1992 signalled it was time to stop relying on the military and monarchy, and highlighted the need for a process of thoroughgoing constitutional and political reform, all the evidence suggests that the King himself failed to understand this…
The violence of May 1992 had left the King in an apparently strong position. He emerged as the supreme political referee, following a superficially successful intervention to solve the crisis. Yet the intervention also marked the high watermark of his authority. His consistent support for the military reflected an obsolete understanding of the Thai political and social order.
There were other pressing reasons to reform the political system. Bhumibol was getting old and frail, and his son Vajiralongkorn had shown no evidence that he would be able to reign as a judicious and respected monarch. Thailand’s more far-sighted royalists realized that if they wanted their influence to survive the king’s death, they needed to create a system that relied less on the personality of the monarch, and more on the network of “good men”. McCargo makes this point in his paper Alternative Meanings of Political Reform in Contemporary Thailand:
One explanation of the political reform movement of the 1990s was that — at least in the minds of the élite — it was primarily concerned with pre-emptive crisis management, with firming up the political system, so as to make it better able to withstand the calamity of a succession crisis. Since at some time in the future the wise guidance of the King would no longer be available, Thailand needed to attain greater political maturity, and attain it fast. By firming up the political system, the reform process would strengthen the political order – and, of course, the institution of the monarchy. In other words, just like King Chulalongkorn’s political reforms in the late nineteenth century, the ultimate aim of the political reform movement of the 1990s was to shore up the long-term position of the throne. Reformism was essentially a supporting act for the main attraction, monarchism. Though hailed as a ‘people’s constitution’, the 1997 Thai constitution could also be seen as a palace constitution.
Moreover, Thai politics remained rotten to the core, dominated by corrupt professional politicians and avaricious military officers, allied to provincial mafia bosses. Many gangsters served openly as members of parliament, or even cabinet ministers, and bought seats for their wives and children too. To quote McCargo again:
By 1997, there could be little doubt that the Thai political order was in need of substantive reform. At the heart of the problem was a crisis of confidence in electoral politics. The rise of vote buying and other forms of electoral corruption meant that the electoral process was becoming increasingly exclusionary, controlled by an unholy alliance of so-called ‘professional politicians’, provincial crooks and hoodlums, unsavoury business interests, large companies, and third-rate ex-soldiers and bureaucrats. These groups had been beneficiaries of the ‘inadequate’ 1991 constitutional arrangements, under which they had thrived and flourished.
Two of Bhumibol’s more progressive acolytes, Anand Panyarachun and social activist Prawase Wasi, began the groundwork for pushing through political reforms that would clean up Thai politics, entrench governance by “good men”, and withstand the traumatic death of King Bhumibol.
Estranged from her husband, with her once fabled beauty gone forever, Sirikit remained a troubled figure with extremist views. Stevenson describes Sirikit in the 1990s as being lost and miserable, surrounded by scheming and sinister ladies-in-waiting described by one member of the king’s network as “barracuda ladies”:
The queen retreated into an informal court of her own. She was lonely and vulnerable…
Within his own royal court, Bhumibol had to deal with divisions… Silence about majesty had been cracked open by modern technology. Whispers in the darkness of cinemas were now shouted over the Internet which carried stories that Queen Sirikit, fighting age, had fallen under the influence of a ‘female Rasputin’ who prescribed medications that were hallucinatory in large doses. Sirikit had for so long been an astonishingly svelte and lovely woman, and courtiers either flattered her to get her help and favours, or told mischievous tales…
Queen Sirikit had difficulty coping with the rumours, the intrigues, the court chatter which cut her off from normal intercourse. “She feels she missed out on chances to educate herself,” her principal private secretary… Suprapada Kasemsant, had once told me. “She has more common sense in her little finger than anyone around here, but she suffers from this feeling of inadequacy.”
Suprapada was killed along with two of Sirikit’s ladies-in-waiting and 10 of the queen’s staff when their Super Puma transport helicopter crashed on the way to one of the royal projects in southern Thailand in 1994. Afterwards, Sirikit was even more vulnerable to the intrigues of the court. In one passage of The Revolutionary King, Stevenson describes Sirikit as being “on another planet”:
The queen said to me one day, “Thank you for helping my husband”. Members of the royal court were keeping their distance, forming a wide circle around her like benign captors who were also held captive by what she might do for them. Her words were softly spoken. Her eyes were moist and almost pleading. In her early sixties, she kept the style and grace of someone who had made it her life’s work to do what seemed right. Her hand trembled in mine. She wanted someone from the outside world to reinforce her husband. She was now marooned on another planet. She could watch distant events through images beamed through space from distant places on earth. Without interaction, these marvels only contributed to her sense of isolation. It was increasingly difficult for her to see things for herself.
Sirikit began holding infamous dinner parties for the generals and nobles in her circle: they would last all night and only end around dawn. The remarkable U.S. secret cable 09BANGKOK2967 describes Sirikit’s lifestyle and the toxic circle of ladies-in-waiting who came to surround her:
The Queen long maintained an active social life, with her tradition of twice weekly dinners that would start near midnight and last to dawn only ending with her move to Hua Hin. Based mainly out of Bangkok’s Chitralada Palace, she regularly spent extended stretches at palaces in the north (Chiang Mai), the deep south (Narathiwas) and the northeast (Sakon Nakhon) through 2004, years after the King stopped his provincial travels. A 1994 Puma helicopter crash tragically robbed Sirikit of her most valued and respected advisers who could steer her away from trouble.
The ladies-in-waiting who are left, the closest of which are Thanphuying Charungjit Teekara, head of the Queen’s Support Foundation, and Thanphuying Chatkaew Nandhabiwat, appear to reinforce the Queen’s tendency to be more nationalistic than the King. Those sentiments have led her astray in forays into political issues in recent years…
Besides Bhumibol’s “network monarchy”, Sirikit too had her network of supporters, usually extreme-right-wing nationalists who pandered to her fantasies of being a reborn warrior queen. The king and queen had minimal contact except at official events.
Bhumibol, meanwhile, increasingly querulous and hectoring, remained contemptuous of civilian politicians. During the 1990s he began taking a particular interest in Bangkok’s worsening traffic problems. Parts of the city were regularly paralyzed for hours by gridlock, and Bhumibol believed he knew how to fix the situation. Handley discusses his approach:
After the May troubles, Bhumibol began to be seen on television giving advice on traffic management to the city government and police, telling them to make a road one way or stop U-turns, for instance. The king had always had meetings with officials, but rarely were they televised, and then only with an overlaid summary. Now frequent broadcasts showed bureaucrats submissively nodding at the king’s remarks, which viewers could hear clearly and unedited. He would point at maps and talk about specific problems that the people themselves knew of, advising changes to the traffic configuration here and the traffic lights there.
The average TV viewer got no information on the utility of his ideas, and few even understood that there was already a whole bureaucracy working on traffic problems, backed by international expertise. It appeared like only the king was confronting the problem. This impression was amplified by news releases that portrayed the king in charge. One in October 1993 said the king gave the police chief a long list of things to do: build 23 traffic underpasses; increase shipping by river to reduce truck traffic in Bangkok; equip police with more motorcycles; upgrade police helicopters; and survey motorists, among others. Another had Bhumibol instructing the Bangkok government to implement a city master plan done by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The queen, meanwhile, made her own suggestions on her birthday in 1993: reduce cars, get rid of large cars, and put more buses on the roads…
He kept advising and criticizing through 1994, during which all the problems worsened. That December he warned that in five or six years the problems would overwhelm the country. “We must solve the problem by looking at the points of arrival and departure. We must shorten the distance between the two points so people will travel shorter distances and spend less time on the road,” he said.
It sounded good, but it didn’t mean much. Some of the king’s advice was useful, but mostly it echoed what was already being done. Some ideas were fundamentally wrong, like several underpasses and his opposition to higher vehicle taxes. He never addressed key problems like unregulated building, the need for mass transit, or the huge growth in new cars: at one point Bangkok-area roads were getting over 15,000 new cars a month. But by going public with his ideas, he ensured that no one else got credit.
Bhumibol was particularly appalled when Banharn Silpa-archa, a provincial godfather nicknamed “Mr ATM” for his skills at buying influence, became prime minister in 1995. As McCargo says in Network monarchy and legitimacy crises in Thailand:
The King was visibly distraught at the new Banharn Silp-archa government, the creation of which coincided with the death of his mother. The Banharn government was a delayed political reality, the rise to the premiership of a low-class Chinese provincial businessman. As an elaborate royal funeral was planned, the King appeared almost nightly on television during August 1995, denouncing the country’s politicians for their venality and self-interest. Bangkok’s traffic woes and flooding were the two major themes of his criticism, but underlying them was a fear and loathing of ambitious corrupt politicians. The rise of Banharn demonstrated that the monarchy lacked the power to block such politicians from becoming prime minister. Nevertheless, the monarchy did not hesitate to undermine elected prime ministers of whom it disapproved, colluding in the ousting of perhaps three or four.
Addressing Thai diplomats at Chitralada Palace on August 17, 1995, Bhumibol savaged the government’s continued failure to fix the traffic mess. “They only talk, talk, talk and argue, argue, argue,” he said, adding a defence of his right to raise such issues:
People may ask why the king is talking politics, but the fact is the king is a Thai citizen who has rights and freedoms under the constitution . . . Everyone has freedom under the constitution. I am using my freedom under the constitution to say what I have said. If anyone wants to sue me, they can try and come up with a charge. I will accept the charge.
Bhumibol’s very public interventions on traffic management followed the same strategy as his royal projects: a theatrical display of his great knowledge and his concern for the welfare of ordinary people, boosting his prestige and popularity at the expense of politicians and bureaucrats. And while well-meaning, his help was not worth much. He was no expert on the complex issues involved. He just believed, as usual, that he knew better. He relished the chance to look superior to elected prime ministers he despised.
Meanwhile, Anand Panyarachun and Prawase Wasi were working on the drafting of a more progressive constitution. They proposed a system that strengthened the powers of the elected government, to end the cycle of chronically weak revolving-door administrations. But greater executive power was to be offset by a set of institutional checks and balances, which were supposed to ensure that the prime minister and his cabinet ruled sensibly and honestly. The constitution was designed to institutionalize the system of network monarchy: governance by “good men”, acolytes of Bhumibol who believed they shared his moral virtue and selfless commitment to the common good. As McCargo wrote in another article, Thai Politics as Reality TV:
The unwritten principles of the new constitution were simple: Good people would be able to enter politics, these good politicians would follow agreed rules of the game, they would not challenge the power or prestige of the monarchy, and in return the monarchy would not interfere with their activities.
Any successful democracy requires a system of checks and balances on elected politicians. The drafters of the new constitution believed that King Bhumibol had, in effect, fulfilled this function during his reign, but this could not last forever. And so they designed a set of institutions to be staffed by ethically upstanding royalists who they hoped would keep politicians on the right track, mimicking Bhumibol’s role as the moral guardian of the nation. To quote McCargo again:
By creating new institutions — such as the Electoral Commission and National Human Rights Commission — the presence of these virtuous individuals could be secured within the political order. In other words, network monarchy could be reorganized on a firmer basis, transcending the informal subsystem that had existed until now.
Australian academic Michael K. Connors has described the ideology of Anand and Prawase as “royal liberalism”. Their philosophy is in many ways profoundly anti-democratic: they do not believe in popular sovereignty, and are convinced that Thailand instead needs to be ruled by selfless, educated and morally sound members of the elite. As he wrote in Article of Faith: The Failure of Royal Liberalism in Thailand:
Over time, Thai liberal democracy has come to mean governments which rule by the consent of the people when they are able to make the right choices, where power is divided among the executive, legislature and judiciary, and the king plays a guardianship role, and holds ultimate sovereignty. Fundamentally, liberalism in Thailand has been a disciplinary ideology that promotes the production of a citizen-body committed to elite constructions of nation, king and religion.
But to many royalists, including Prem Tinsulanonda and members of Sirikit’s circle, and to the military, which has never tended to be genuinely royalist but which has exploited its symbolic position as defender of the monarchy to assert its right to meddle in politics, the proposals of Anand and Prawase were unacceptable. They would undermine the military’s political role, and strip power from the entrenched bureaucratic elites. The proposed constitution met with fierce resistance from Thailand’s old guard. And so, as McCargo says:
The political reform agenda reflected a struggle between liberals and conservatives for the soul of network monarchy.
During 1997, it appeared that the conservatives would prevail. The palace and the military, along with the vast majority of traditional royalists, were firmly opposed to the proposed changes. But then a sudden and savage economic shock changed everything.
The heady growth that had transformed Thailand since the mid-1980s had created a dangerous bubble mentality among many businessmen: they began to complacently believe that the boom would go on forever, and their investment decisions became more and more grandiose and irrational. This was compounded by the traditional corruption and cronyism of Thai business. The big firms that prospered in Thailand did not have to be the most efficient or the most productive; they just had to have the right connections. It was the same story when it came to getting credit: banks enthusiastically handed out loans with little or no oversight to well-connected Thais, and often the money was not invested for any productive purpose whatsoever, just frittered away in conspicuous consumption, sunk in unviable vanity projects, or used for speculation in property and the stock market. Golf courses, shopping malls and gaudy commercial office buildings began mushrooming all over Bangkok and in provincial towns too.
Much of the foreign cash that had flooded into Thailand was “hot money”, invested in speculative short-term assets rather than productive capital. And as Thailand’s underlying economic problems became more apparent, jittery foreigners began yanking their money back out of the country. Investors had moved funds into Thailand with little real understanding of the economic situation and the problems caused by corruption in the banking system, and now they responded with blind panic. They had been convinced Thailand was a miracle economy and a surefire route to riches; suddenly they decided that it was a financial disaster zone. Neither paradigm was particularly accurate, but the sudden switch from gung-ho bullishness to hysterical anxiety was catastrophic for Thailand. On May 14 and 15, 1997, the rush to the exit became a stampede. The Thai baht came under massive pressure, as hot money fled the country. Foreign exchange traders, scenting blood in the water and betting that the currency peg would not withstand the onslaught, launched an all-out speculative attack on the baht.
The government, under Prime Minister Chavalit Yongchaiyudh, dithered haplessly, eventually bowing to the inevitable and devaluing the baht on July 2. The consequences were far more traumatic than the Thai authorities had anticipated: Nobel laureate economist Paul Krugman described the debacle as “a meltdown”. Thailand’s economy went into freefall. On August 5, the government agreed to implement an IMF-monitored austerity and financial reform programme in return for a $17 billion loan to help prop up the baht. Most of the country’s biggest conglomerates were crippled by crushing foreign debts; the IMF prescribed shock therapy to fix the economy, with technically bankrupt businesses expected to sell off assets at fire-sale prices to foreign buyers. The Thai crisis in turn set off a regional contagion that sparked panicked outflows of hot money from economies across southeast Asia and in South Korea.
The contagion clearly demonstrated that perception and confidence played an absolutely central role in the Asian financial crisis. International investors had very suddenly lost faith in the stories they had been told about the miraculous economic prospects of the region, suddenly perceiving a much darker vision of massive corruption and toxic crony capitalism. The fairytale of Thailand’s economic miracle had been abruptly punctured.
Bhumibol saw the economic crisis as a vindication of everything he had been trying to tell Thailand’s people. From the 1970s, he had been developing a theory of agriculture and development that stressed self-reliance and self-sufficiency, and promoted modest and incremental improvements in income and living standards rather than maximizing consumption and economic growth. This became known as Bhumibol’s “sufficiency economy” theory. But the uncomfortable fact was that Bhumibol faced bankruptcy as a result of the 1997 meltdown. If he had foreseen the crash, as he claimed, he seems to have forgotten to warn the Crown Property Bureau, which managed royal finances. The CPB functioned much like other sprawling, overleveraged Asian conglomerates, and like them it was brought to the brink of ruin by the financial crisis. Respected financial technocrats were drafted in to help salvage the CPB, and the government provided assistance on extraordinarily favourable terms. Over the next few years, the royal finances were restored to remarkable health.
With politicians, tycoons and the palace all reeling from the financial crisis, the battle over political reform came to a climax. The conservatives initially saw a chance to once again impose traditional “Thai-style democracy”. In July 1997 conservatives began floating the possibility of a royal intervention with Prem reinstalled as prime minister. By August, Prem was declaring that he would accept such a role if he was asked. And in October he was still pressing the plan, as McCargo says:
Prem was deployed to shore up the legitimacy of the Chavalit government in the eyes of the IMF, on the basis that the survival of the country and the economy had to come first. For a time Prem was discussed openly as a possible interim prime minister. On 6 October 1997 Prem summoned newspaper editors to his house, to float the idea of forming a government of national unity. In effect, network monarchy would take over direct control of the country.
But instead, the economic crash strengthened the arguments of the liberal royalists who insisted that reform was essential if Thailand was to withstand the multiple challenges it was facing. Popular anger with the country’s politicians for getting Thailand into such a dire economic situation helped generate an unstoppable momentum for change. Despite the conservative backlash and efforts to install Prem as leader of a royally backed national salvation government, the so-called “People’s Constitution” was passed by parliament on September 27 and promulgated on November 11. Although far from progressive by international standards, it appeared to offer a set of rules that would allow Thailand to evolve as a democratic nation.
At the dawn of the 21st century, Thailand’s future seemed full of promise and potential. It was emerging from the pain of the economic crisis. The era of military dominance and frequent coups appeared to be at an end: humiliated by its behaviour in 1992, the chastened army had retreated from politics. The constitution passed in 1997 laid the foundations for democratic governance in which decisive leaders could emerge and corruption could be contained. Thailand was a beacon of hope and progress in the region, an example for other democratizing nations to follow.
Bhumibol’s reputation was at its zenith. As he celebrated his sixth-cycle 72nd birthday in 1999, he was beloved in Thailand and respected across the world as a wise and kindly monarch who had played a central role in steering his kingdom safely through stormy waters and turning it into a genuine democracy. Bhumibol had always said his goal was to help Thailand grow and prosper as a united, harmonious and fundamentally democratic kingdom. Most Thais fully believed that he had kept his promise.
The truth was much more complex and messy. Thailand’s faltering journey towards democracy had been hindered more than helped by Bhumibol Adulyadej. His accidental killing of his brother in 1946, failure to reveal the truth about what had happened, and acquiescence in the smearing of innocent men, strangled the development of democracy in the late 1940s. A generation later, as the country was once again taking tentative steps towards greater openness and freedom, the palace unleashed sinister forces that led to the horror at Thammasat University on October 6, 1976, and the toxic Thanin regime that followed. In 1992, Bhumibol again backed the wrong side, blinkered by his instinctive distaste for popular sovereignty and his preference for army rule. He deserved credit for acting as a curb on the excesses of military strongmen, and for ending the bloodshed in both 1973 and 1992: had he not intervened at these two critical junctures, Thailand could have slid far deeper into dictatorship. But he had also acted as a drag on democracy, retarding and undermining its growth.
Thanks to constant royalist propaganda, and the laziness of much foreign reporting of Thailand, a fairytale version of Bhumibol’s reign had become widely accepted as true. And the fact that Thailand appeared to have advanced to genuine stability and democracy gave retrospective credibility to the fairy tale. Most people in Thailand and beyond believed Bhumibol’s story was the incredible tale of a modest and unassuming monarch whose tireless efforts and moral leadership had brought democracy and development to his kingdom. Thailand could now face the new century with confidence and pride. An adulatory Time magazine story marking Bhumibol’s birthday in 1999 is typical of the praise showered on Rama IX:
The king is universally revered by the entire population of Thailand. The most common way of referring to the King in Thai is Prachao Yu Hua — “Lord above your head”. In the villages, many are still too overawed even to look at him. Instead they put out handkerchiefs for him to walk on and save the scraps of cloth with his footprint in shrines at home.
Thais have nothing but good things to say about their monarch… “Thailand wouldn’t be worth living in if we didn’t have him,” says Pim Sairattanee, also aged 72, a flower seller on Bangkok’s busy Sukhumvit Road. “He has a white heart, there is magic, goodness and power in his heart,” adds Prachob Virawong, 42, a street vendor from the poor northeast who sells fried grasshoppers in Bangkok. When boxer Somluck Khamsing won Thailand’s first ever Olympic gold metal in Atlanta in 1996, it was a portrait of the King that he raised over his head in celebration. Says Bangkok political scientist Chai-anan Samudavanija: “He is perhaps the only monarch who anywhere who has total love and no fear.”
Yet the King floats above this adulation, observing it as from outside his own body, gracious but distant, selfless in the Buddhist sense. In the age of celebrity, where the freeze-dried smile is required of all princelings of pop, King Rama IX is habitually shown with the demeanor of a religious ascetic…
Throughout his life, the King’s only real escape from Olympian melancholy has been his passion for jazz. Long before his health deteriorated, there were recorded sessions of the King’s band on weekends that went out over the radio. Any famous jazz musician visiting Thailand invariably received an invitation to play with the King. “Some say music is like medicine for him,” says Manrat Srikaranonda, a pianist who has played with the King since 1956. “He can play the saxophone very sweet… We used to play all night in Hua Hin until dawn came, and then walk out on the beach.”
But although Manrat still goes to the Palace on Friday nights, to play, the King has less stamina these days. Thais have not seen much of their King this year – his health is fragile. He has a heart condition that first required surgery in 1995, as well as chronic back pain that originated from a car accident 50 years ago. “Yes, he still plays, but not so long. And he must rest between sets.”
Many Thais are uneasy that they may be living in the twilight of Bhumibol’s reign. Even as the nation prepares to celebrate [his] 72nd birthday, thoughts of the future are tinged with foreboding. The 47-year-old Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn has yet to achieve the same level of devotion among Thais that his father enjoys, and some say the King has set an impossibly high standard to follow…
The King may take solace from the knowledge that he has outlived some of the forces of darkness that threatened Thailand during his reign: communism has disappeared, and along with it much of the vicious right-wing militarism that sprang up to oppose it. Coups seem barely conceivable in Thailand today. Thailand still has its problems, and the King has long agonized about how to make society fairer, even as the World Bank calculates that Thailand has the biggest gap between rich and poor in Asia. In recent years, the King has spoken out about the dangers of graft, environmental degradation, over-reliance on foreign investment and even the chronically gridlocked traffic in Bangkok – all issues affecting the everyday life of Thai citizens that heir governments have been slow to address. But after more than half a century of taxing rule, the King should be above such worries. In Buddhist terms, he has made more than enough merit. As he completes his sixth cycle of 12, nothing more stands between King Bhumibol Adulyadej, “Strength of the Land, Incomparable Power”, and the smile on the face of the Buddha.
Bhumibol believed his work was done. Following his sixth cycle birthday, he abandoned the smog and intrigue of Bangkok, going into seclusion in his seaside summer palace in Hua Hin, known as Klai Kangwon, or “Far from Worries”. Away from the company of constantly watchful courtiers and his estranged queen, his main companions were a brood of mongrel dogs: Tongdaeng and her nine offspring Tongchompunut, Tong-ek, Tongmuan, Tongtat, Tongplu, Tong-yip, Tong-yod, Tong-at and Tongnopkun, as well as Tongdaeng’s chubbier rival Tonglarng. He was visibly letting go, allowing himself to relax at last. As the U.S. embassy reported in 09BANGKOK2967:
The King’s decade-long sojourn in Hua Hin starting in 2000 significantly limited the amount of interaction he had not only with the Queen but also those whom many outsiders (incorrectly) presume spend significant amounts of time with him: Privy Councilors; as well as officials of the office of the Principal Private Secretary, all of whom are Bangkok-based and do not have regular access to the King… His most regular social interaction in recent years came in weekly late-Saturday night jam sessions with his pick-up jazz band, whose geriatric members have played with the King for decades.
Besides his beloved jazz, Bhumibol’s main project was writing The Story of Tongdaeng, his book about his favourite dog. Published in 2002, it shows a side of the king’s life that had rarely been glimpsed: in photographs throughout his book we see Bhumibol dressed in casual clothes, relaxing. He is explicitly depicted as an elderly man enjoying his semi-retirement. In one picture, Bhumibol — dressed in grey trousers, a pink shirt, a patterned garment that looks like a bathrobe, and slippers — is even shown on his knees sprinkling baby powder on Tongdaeng’s belly. In the background, a cushion shaped like a dog’s paw sits atop an upholstered chair. Several photographs show the interior of Klai Kangwon, and it is far from a vision of palatial luxury: instead, the pictures show a large drably furnished room cluttered with books and obsolete computer equipment. It is, unmistakably, an old man’s room, but also unmistakably an echo of the Lausanne study strewn with gadgets where Bhumibol spent so much time alone as a youth. On a sideboard behind Bhumibol’s disorganized desk, beside a roll of film and surrounded by at least three cheap computer printers, is a framed photograph of his mother Sangwan as an elderly woman, wearing pink.
In its gauche clumsiness, the book surpasses even The Story of Mahajanaka: the rather obvious moral of the story was that Thais should be as loyal, well-behaved and respectful to the king as his favourite mongrel:
Tongdaeng is a respectful dog with proper manners; she is humble and knows protocol. She would always sit lower than the King; even when he pulls her up to embrace her, Tongdaeng would lower herself down on the floor, her ears in a respectful drooping position, as if she would say, “I don’t dare.” …
One royal attendant mentioned that, if one wanted to know how to sit properly when one had an audience with the King, one should look at Tongdaeng.
Yet many Thais loved The Story of Tongdaeng. It became the biggest selling book in Thai history, a measure of how much Bhumibol was revered by many of his subjects. He seemed happy in Klai Kangwon: several photographs in the book show him smiling. Had he just stayed in seclusion until his death, watching the sun set on his reign from his seaside palace, Bhumibol would have been recorded in history as a unique and brilliant monarch. His many mistakes would have been excused or forgotten, and his successes celebrated and magnified. He would be remembered not as an awkward, morally diminished man who lied about killing his own brother and who never wanted democracy, but as a compassionate king who shaped the destiny of modern Thailand and rescued the nation from the forces of darkness.
But that is not how the story ends. This is a tragedy, not a fairy tale. And tragedies don’t end happily ever after in a summer palace by the seaside.