It has happened at last. Enfeebled for years, King Bhumibol of Thailand has passed. He had nearly reached 90. He wasn’t seen much lately, at least in the way that we once remembered him. Mostly sequestered in a royal hospital suite, he was occasionally brought out for anniversaries, though in specially outfitted rigs and propped up in stiffly starched uniforms. And he would gaze yonder, barely seeming to take note.
Yet these appearances sufficed for many of his subjects. They took comfort in his frozen visage, finding their place in the Thai social order which the king, possessing divine status, infused with legitimacy and righteousness. The grieving evident after his departure makes convincing the emotiveness with which he was regarded.
But what is this social order in Thailand that the king reaffirmed? Its dynamic was once very different. The great Chakri kings of the 19th and early 20th centuries, Mongkut and Chulalongkorn, were absolute monarchs, their dynasties anchored in mystical qualities, constructed legacies, and sacred regalia. But they came under siege from the muscular British and French colonialism that pressed in on all sides. Confronting the challenges of rapid modernisation, Mongkut and Chulalongkorn felt that their kingdoms could survive only by doing the same.
To this end, they vastly upgraded their frail bureaucratic and military apparatuses, therein discovering new forms of legitimacy through secular capacity. They recruited European functionaries for guidance. They harnessed Thai agriculture to regional rice markets. And in nurturing Thai generals and ministers, Chulalongkorn even abolished prostration, an archly ritualised form of ascriptive status and obeisance. And it worked. Alone among the territories of Southeast Asia, Thailand’s social order remained coherent and its politics autonomous.
But the monarchy got little thanks. Having modernised the military and bureaucracy, the Chakri dynasty was cut down to size by the very forces it had empowered. Specifically, through a ‘revolution’ mounted in 1932, military officers, civil servants, and a spectrum of fascist and reformist politicians threw off the constraints of royal absolutism. In their ambition, they sought to advance Thailand to the next level of secular modernisation.
General Phibun Songkhram, in gaining the upper hand as prime minister, grew particularly vehement in his anti-royalist sentiments. And the monarch at the time, King Prajadhipok, fled into exile in Europe, posed notoriously with Hitler for photos on a landing strip, then abdicated in 1935. A royal family member, Mahidol, briefly took up the threadbare mantle of kingship. But Chakri fortunes continued to decline. Mahidol’s son, Ananda, rose to become king later that year. But in June 1946, whether through gunplay or suicide, Ananda was found dead in his royal apartment, shot in the head. His brother, Bhumibol, though never expected to become king, was hurriedly installed.
During the 1950s, General Phibun continued in power. In need of legitimation himself, he experimented with a party system and elections. But these institutions never equilibrated. Rather, Phibun’s regime was overturned through a pair of coups mounted in the late 1950s by yet another military strongman, Field Marshall Sarit Thanarat.
Sarit is remembered mostly for having accelerated Thailand’s modernisation, giving much impetus during his tenure to the country’s industrial take-off. But his rough reputation and his disturbing the social order meant that he too felt the need for legitimation.
However, for Sarit, elections were not the mechanism by which to achieve this. Electoral contestation, in its competitiveness, risked government turnover and policy disruptions.
Sarit thus needed a different strategy for legitimation, a partnership by which to bolster his rule, rather than a process through which he could be ousted from office. A talented but base character, Sarit thus channelled his appetite for corruption and indulgence into a motor force of innovation. It was essentially Sarit, then who hit upon the idea of refurbishing the monarchy, in appearance, if not substance. He renovated the tattered imagery of royal absolutism, gilded by a renewed insistence on obsequious prostration.
There is much irony here in Thailand’s socio-political record. Mongkut and Chulalongkorn had sought legitimation by modernising the military, leading to the monarchy’s marginalisation. Sarit Thanarat sought legitimation by refurbishing the monarchy, leading to its elevation by the military into a new trinity of ‘king, country, and religion’. In these circumstances, even more surprising than Bhumibol’s ascension was the greater prowess with which he seemed to have been invested.
However, we learn from the cautious biographies that have been written and the many obituaries now appearing that Bhumibol remained penned in. And he was pained by the military’s imposition of strict limits on his autonomy, so at odds with a cover story of revived divinity, absolutism, and infallibility.
In these circumstances, he grew resentful over his helplessness in reordering the country’s politics.
We don’t know what King Bhumibol might have done in this regard had he possessed a freer hand. His training in European and American institutions and his fondness for jazz, cameras, and snazzy sportswear intimate his progressivism. His inability to act on these preferences left him a much more frustrated figure than his associations with sax-playing, photo-snapping, and Elvis suggest.
To be sure, whenever Thailand’s generals grew fractious, social pressures bubbled up. And at such junctures, Bhumibol stepped into the breach. But unpracticed, his interventions were erratic. Just last week, Thais commemorated the 40th anniversary of the slaughter of students at Thammasat University, instigated by the military and its auxiliary forces of notorious Red Gaurs.
Warming to their anti-communist and royalist sentiments, Bhumibol sided with the military.
By contrast, in 1992, shortly after the military had mounted yet another coup, the king veered in the other direction. He gathered the coup leader and a major civil society leader before him, insisted that they prostrate themselves, then ordered the military back to the barracks. In this context, Thailand was re-democratised.
But in 2010, the king veered back. At the height of fevered street-level struggles between royalists and Thaksin-istas, Bhumibol signalled his favour for the former, by colour-coding with his queen in monarchial yellow. He showed deeper attachments to the military, then, which had shot scores of red-shirted protesters dead. But by this time, Bhumibol was firmly ensnared by the military command and the Privy Council, enmeshed in the limitless riches of the Crown Property Bureau, and distracted by his mounting frailties.
Of course, the king will be warmly remembered for his upcountry tours and development schemes, acting in the scant space that the military allowed him. Indeed, it is for the divine radiance and common touch that he exhibited on these outings that he is so routinely portrayed in Western reporting as ‘revered’.
But we must remember this too: as much as raising his followers’ hopes, the king tamped them back down, tempering themes of a brighter future with arcane notions of a ‘sufficiency economy’. In this policy vision, even as Bangkok glittered, the countryside was told to be content with its lot.
Still, Bhumibol was always more personally reflective than indulgent, eschewing the outlandish behaviours that monarchs and first families so vividly display elsewhere in Southeast Asia. Thus, while the military made full use of Bhumibol as an engine for legitimation, he probably did help in holding a fissiparous society together.
One wonders whether his son will do as well. The military seems to have made its peace with him, ensuring that succession will be seamless. But whether ordinary subjects can be encouraged to ‘revere’ him is far less certain. But even to raise this question may constitute lese majeste. It is best, then, that we conclude with frank appreciation for the tight spot that Bhumibol was in and the dexterity with which he mostly performed his role.
William Case is professor in the Department of Asian and International Studies at City University of Hong Kong