Editor’s Note: Thitinan Pongsudhirak teaches international political economy and directs the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok. The views expressed here are solely his.
Thitinan Pongsudhirak: Thailand's late monarch leaves behind modern country
Ruler lived a modest life when he could have been lavish, he says
The passing of King Bhumibol Adulyadej brings to a close a defining chapter in Thailand. During his seven-decade rule, the monarch presided over Thailand’s climb from a village backwater to a modern nation.
His glorious reign was enabled by conditions and circumstances uniquely suited to his leadership. He has left behind a grieving and grateful nation that must now chart its own path into an uncertain and unknown future.
For all concerned in the country and beyond, the new Thailand must be based on a spirit of compromise and accommodation.
Worldwide audiences often are bewildered by the intense affection the Thai people harbored for King Bhumibol. When he celebrated his 60th year on the throne in June 2006, hundreds of thousands of Thais lined Bangkok’s thoroughfares to catch a glimpse of the monarch and to celebrate the milestone with him.
Near the end, many Thais flocked to his hospital to pray and pay their last respects. They shed many tears when Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha announced the King’s passing. Thais knew this day would come, but they wanted to delay it as long as possible.
The Thais’ treatment of their collective “father” can seem like god worship, characteristic of born-again evangelicals, or the type of manufactured adulation common in North Korea.
Thailand's King Bhumibol Adulyadej: A life in pictures
This reverence and respect for the monarch derived from the Cold War era when Thailand had to go it alone as the last domino withstanding communist expansionism in Southeast Asia.
In rapid succession during April and May 1975, Cambodia fell to the Maoist Khmer Rouge, Saigon to the North Vietnamese army and Laos to communist insurgents. On Thailand’s western front, Burma – now Myanmar – became reclusive and autocratic after 1962.
At home, Thailand was poor, beset with regular blackouts, unreliable waterworks and unpaved roads in most places. In these early years of economic development, King Bhumibol exerted efforts beyond the call of duty and built an indelible bond with his people. He traversed far-flung corners of the land, at some risk as the local communist insurgency was making headway, to promote agricultural production, irrigation, infrastructure construction and myriad public good.
Thai King mourned
As a core component of the Thai national identity, the late King lived a modest life when he could have been lavish. He endured hardship when comfort was available and gave Thais a unifying, rallying symbol to thwart external threats and to believe in their country’s immense potential.
Detractors and critics will say all that was achieved was misguided and came at a great cost of a long period of military-authoritarian rule, that development was lopsided in favor of the urban elite, that democratic development was stunted by repeated coups that kept the military-monarchy symbiosis front and center in Thai society.
These points are not invalid, but Thailand would not be where it is today without King Bhumibol, a force of personality who led by example with unsurpassable moral authority. His achievement is self-evident in view of the harsher times that befell Thailand’s neighbors over the same period.
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By virtue of his success, the late monarch has left behind a modern country that now has to come to terms with his passing. While the military junta plays an instrumental role in the transition to a new monarch, elections and democratic rule ultimately cannot be denied, and popular voices have been heard time and again calling for a more collective self-determined future.
The monarchy that King Bhumibol rebuilt will not be the same under his successor. The imperatives of democratic rule require a 21st-century kind of monarchy within a renegotiated constitutional order. Brokering and institutionalizing this compromise is Thailand’s way forward.