A VERY SPECIAL POWER
Also Popular and Influential
When King Bhumibol Adulyadej speaks, his people listen. As on the eve of his 71st birthday on Dec. 5 last year. The King held a public audience with some 20,000 politicians and high-ranking officials, which was broadcast live to the nation. The themes of the King's address were unity, perseverance and self-sufficiency. The speech included a dig at squabbling economic ministers, and a clarification of his ideas on simpler living - a message made at the end of one of the hardest years in Thailand's history. Mixing praise and criticism, King Bhumibol stressed the need to pool resources and to be more frugal because of the financial crash. As if to humorously underscore his point, the King and his family all squeezed into a Toyota saloon car afterward, not the customary spacious Mercedes Benz or Rolls-Royce - and drove off.
Thailand's King Bhumibol bucks a global trend. In an era when monarchies are on the wane, pictures of the world's longest-reigning living monarch can be found in virtually every house and office across Thailand. His position is unquestioned, backed by a law of lese majeste which outlaws criticism. It's hardly necessary though, given the enormous respect and affection the King has built up over five decades of working to improve and open up his country, and the unique aura over the monarchy in Thailand. Through a combination of words and deeds, the King provides moral authority and guidance, especially during times of trouble and crisis - as now. (Because the King is in a class of his own - truly above it all - Asiaweek's editors decided that this year his standing, role and influence should be addressed separately from the Power 50 ranking.)
Only in extreme circumstances does the King touch the levers of power. But when he does, the intervention is decisive. After the army spilt the blood of pro-democracy protesters on the streets of Bangkok in May 1992, the King called in the key rival players, unelected prime minister Gen. Suchinda Kraprayoon and politician Chamlong Srimuang, to sit at his feet. Both men were told to stop the conflict, and the general later stepped down. Mostly, though, the King prefers to work quietly behind the scenes. His pressing and abiding concern is in the area of rural development.
This coming December marks the King's sixth 12-year cycle, which is a highly auspicious event. But his 72nd birthday celebration is also a worrying reminder about his future. The world's most popular monarch has had two angioplasty operations in recent years. Seen less often at official functions these days, he has been increasingly delegating his duties to his successor, the crown prince, and to two of the princesses. Last week the King was recovering from what was reported to be hemorrhoid surgery. The nation wishes him well.
ALSO POPULAR AND INFLUENTIAL
Like the Thai monarch, Cambodia's King Norodom Sihanouk, 76, is beloved by his people and able to exert considerable influence on his country's affairs. For all Sihanouk's weakness for the good life, no one has ever seriously doubted his abiding devotion to "le petit peuple" - ordinary Cambodians - and to all things Cambodian. Sihanouk's distress each time the political train derailed has usually resulted in "medical" retreats to Beijing. After the political violence of mid-1997, some feared he might never return. But he did, and he hosted post-election talks last year that led to a coalition government. Doctors say his ailments are normal for a man his age - good news for a country still desperately in need of benign, moral leadership.
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