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November 30, 2000

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Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

DECEMBER 3, 1999 VOL. 25 NO. 48

Across the country, larger-than-life portraits of the King dominate the streets
Yvan Cohen for Asiaweek

A Very Special Monarch
Thailand's King Bhumibol has a unique place in his people's hearts -- and in the nation's life

The haunting singing of hundreds of uniformed boatmen echoes off the banks of the Chao Phraya River as the barge carrying King Bhumibol Adulyadej glides through the heart of Bangkok. As Prajao Chiwit, the Lord of Life, passes by, the mighty and the meek standing on the riverbanks bow in reverence. His Majesty's vessel is followed by that carrying the heir to the throne, Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, sitting alongside his sister, Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn. Both are relaxed and smiling.

The King's wife, Queen Sirikit, waves from her high vantage point overlooking the procession, while the two teenage daughters of the prince, Princess Bhajara Kittiyabha and Mom Chao Siriwan Waree Mahidol, giggle and point excitedly at the flotilla. Royal Navy inflatable rubber boats buzz along the banks of the river, securing this part of Thailand's royal waterway for the special event. As the barges dock at the Temple of Dawn, the King enters to offer new robes to the monks - a ceremony that marks the end of Buddhist Lent.

The Royal Barge Procession is a moving and spectacular event - said to be matched only by royal coronations in Britain. Dating back to the Ayuthaya period, over 300 years ago, the ceremony features great pomp, with a magnificent flotilla of 52 elaborately carved and decorated barges propelled by 2,000 oarsmen. In a seemingly unending parade that stretches along more than a kilometer of the river, it is one of the most visual confirmations of the vibrancy of the Thai monarchy.

Royal families around the world are on the wane. But not in Thailand. And certainly not this year, which is 2542 by the Thai Buddhist calendar. On Dec. 5, the country celebrates an auspicious birthday for the King - the sixth cycle of 12 years. It has been marked by a flurry of official ceremonies, shows, concerts and charity events sprinkled through the year. All over this kingdom of 62 million people, larger-than-life images of the King stand in front of town halls, offices and at traffic intersections - a reminder, if any were needed, of the monarch's position in public life.

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King Bhumibol represents stability in changing times. Many of Thailand's institutions are in the throes of transformation, including the government, the Buddhist clergy and the military. Freed from the old threat of military coups, the 67-year-old constitutional democracy is still plagued with rickety coalition governments and venal politicians. And while the worst of the economic crisis may be over, many people have had their ambitions tempered and their lives troubled by the changes.

It is probably safe to say that no monarch in the world is as popular as King Bhumibol. Or so revered. Or so present. His portrait hangs in virtually every home and office in the land, a kind of benevolent father watching over his children. Every night all TV channels run footage of royal family members attending official functions. Some, such as visits by foreign heads of state, are clearly significant; others would make little television sense anywhere else. But, as former premier Anand Panyarachun says, over the years the King has earned the admiration of his people in a manner that cannot be fully comprehended by foreigners.

King Bhumibol came to the throne in 1946, in the wake of the still-unexplained gunshot death of his brother, King Ananda Mahidol. Aged 18, and with no training in regal responsibilities, the young monarch pledged to "reign with righteousness for the benefit and happiness of the Siamese people." It proved to be no idle promise. Millions of people all over the country treasure the day their ruler came to visit their village or town. He has traveled to all corners of the country, trod its fields and talked to countless people. The enduring image is of a kindly man, notebook and pen in hand, listening. As he has said himself: "In order to be King, you have to be King 24 hours a day."

Despite the pomp of the Royal Barge Procession and other ceremonies that dot the calendar, the monarchy is viewed as modern and progressive - as exemplified by his keen interest in photography and his skill as a jazz musician. Former premier Anand says royalty has succeeded in changing with the times - thanks to a King who has exercised his prerogative to be consulted, the responsibility to warn and the right to encourage. He has helped politicians and the people, suggesting solutions to a range of issues, from how to ease flooding, drought or the Bangkok traffic jams, and pursuing a plethora of development projects.

It is all so different from the days when, in the wake of the 1932 coup that toppled the absolute monarchy, anti-royalist sentiment was strong. There was doubt then that the monarchy would see out the half-century, never mind the turn of the millennium. Today, the King has the support of both a powerful elite and of the masses. Through times of trauma and change, through coups and dictatorship, through the Vietnam War and the Cold War, he has provided stability and a sense of continuity. The King's own efforts, bolstered by the rulers of the day, have solidified the monarchy. In the early 1960s, dictator Field Marshall Sarit Thanarat liked to emphasize the three pillars of society - the monarchy, religion and the nation, with the monarchy at the top of the pyramid. The King once commented that there are times when it feels like an inverted pyramid, with the people's problems resting on his shoulders.

Though he must, by law, stand aside from politics, King Bhumibol has intervened in moments of crisis to steady the country's course, staving off coup attempts or political paralysis. Among the more memorable images was the scene in May 1992, in the wake of the army's shooting of pro-democracy demonstrators in Bangkok, when the monarch summoned unelected premier Gen. Suchinda Kraprayoon and opposition politician Chamlong Srimuang to the royal palace. A prominent foreign businessman recalls: "The King sat them down and lectured them, in front of the TV cameras, to stop harming the Thai people, that this violence on the streets was not getting us anywhere."

Says former Thai premier Gen. Prem Tinsulanonda, who was also at the audience: "The King is constitutionally above politics. He does not step in until the government of the day is no longer able to keep the situation under control. In moments of great crises, people look to him for help to stop bloodshed. He has brought about peace by granting advice, mediation or compromise."

In Britain, anti-royalists call for an end to the monarchy and the tabloid press front-pages its family scandals, often involving the heir to the throne, Prince Charles, and his troubled domestic life. Thailand's equivalent, the Crown Prince, is portrayed as performing his official duties with complete decorum. If there are problems, they are not aired publicly. And no newspaper would dare give space to any hint of scandal in the palace. A tough law on lèse-majesté takes care of that.

Still, the King's health is a source of public discussion. Pressure of work and the thousands of kilometers traveled along the highways and back roads of his country have taken their toll. In 1995, the monarch underwent two operations to enlarge a narrowed artery to his heart. They were successful and returned the King to vigor. This year, he was diagnosed with a benign tumor in his colon and hemorrhoids, resulting in a period of absence from public functions. He also injured his back. The King's hardy appearance at the Royal Barge Ceremony set off a wave of whispered relief that he looked well.

Still, the health worries have brought into focus the delicate issue of the succession. Following in King Bhumibol's wake are a son and three daughters: the Crown Prince; Princess Ubol Rattana, 48, recently divorced from an American commoner; the widely popular Crown Princess Sirindhorn, 44, who is single; and Princess Chulabhorn, 42. A loosely worded amendment to the constitution in 1972 allows a female to become monarch. But it is not relevant today as the heir is male.

The 47-year-old Crown Prince has increasingly taken over the ceremonial duties of his father in recent years, and features regularly in media coverage of official functions. Nowadays, he is often seen in the company of his consort, Princess Soamsawali, by whom he has one daughter, Princess Bhajara. The household also includes Mom Chao Siriwan, a daughter with Yuwatida Pholprasert, who also bore him four sons.

That relationship came to an acrimonious end in 1996. In a tersely worded statement, then-prime minister Banharn Silapa-archa said the government had dismissed Air Chief Marshall Anand Rodsamkhan, then 60, who had been posted to the crown prince's palace. Anand would not be welcome back in Thailand, the premier said. No reason was given for the dismissal. Anand and Yuwatida, with her four sons, left to live in Britain. Today, the Crown Prince has put the incident behind him.

Unlike his father, the prince was prepared from birth to sit on the throne. Mostly educated abroad, he spent time at the Royal Australian Military College at Duntroon and trained with the Special Air Service regiment in Perth. He is an accomplished and enthusiastic pilot and, as a member of the Royal Thai Air Command, holds the rank of general. He has also spent time studying international affairs at Imperial College London.

Both the Crown Prince and Princess Sirindhorn have elevated royal titles. That of the Crown Prince was awarded in 1972, formally setting out his rights to the throne on his coming of age at 21. His suffix of Chakri Nares Yupharaj Visuth Siam Makut Rajakumar states his claim to the Chakri line and the crown of Siam. The promotion of Princess Sirindhorn, granted in 1977, gave her the title Maha Chakri. She has the suffix Siam Borom Rajakumari, which echoes the prince's title, but not his right to the crown.

One of King Bhumibol's traits is his fondness for giving advice at what he sees as the appropriate time. His most recent gift to the nation, published last year, was The Story of Mahajanaka, which he authored (it has sold over 600,000 copies). Taken from old Buddhist scriptures, it is a tale of the need for perseverance in adversity. As King Bhumibol tells it, a ship belonging to King Mahajanaka capsizes in a storm while en route to seek wealth in the Land of Suvarnabhumi. The others on board fall prey to sea creatures. But Mahajanaka, refusing to call for help from the gods, is rescued after seven days and seven nights by the goddess Mani Mekhala. Eventually ascending the throne at the City of Mithila, he goes on to found a university based on the concept of respect for nature.

The Story of Mahajanaka is a fitting message for Thais as they negotiate the rough seas whipped up by the economic crisis and their damaging development path. It is also an appropriate reflection of the important work the monarch has done for his country. By staying in tune with his nation's problems, King Bhumibol has proved that even in a rapidly changing world, a royal family can have genuine relevance and a role to play.

The royal family is expected to gather to celebrate the King's 72nd birthday on Dec. 5. As they too mark the day, the Thai people will be hoping their monarch will be among them to celebrate his seventh-cycle birthday in 12 years' time. Thailand is on the road to recovery, but with worries about the future, the King's subjects will continue to rely on his guidance.

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