BANGKOK – Thailand’s King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the world’s longest-reigning monarch, on Thursday marked his 70th year on the throne — from his hospital bed, immobile and wracked by a variety of age-related ailments that have made Thais wonder what their world would be like without him.
There was a time when Bhumibol (pronounced “Poo-me-pon”) would lead his aides on treks through swamps and over mountains to learn what was on the minds of his subjects in the most far-flung areas of his realm. But the 88-year-old guest of honour is unlikely to make a public appearance this week.
For most of the past decade the king has lived in a hospital — in a new wing built for him— for treatment of various problems, according to regular palace statements on his health. The ailments have sapped his strength and taken him gradually out of the public eye. On Tuesday, he underwent an operation to clear an artery; doctors said the results were satisfactory.
“I really can’t think about the country without the king … it’s just impossible to do so,” said Nonthawit Kanlapanayut, a 23-year-old trader at Thailand’s biggest food processing conglomerate. “The monarchy is at the core for Thai people.”
Ten years ago, the ceremonies for his 60th diamond jubilee were splendid. Golden royal barges glinted in a twilight procession, gliding down the Chao Phraya River, for an audience that included representatives of 25 of the world’s royal families, who also attended an opulent banquet the next day. Hundreds of thousands of ordinary Thais jammed Bangkok’s Royal Plaza to hear their king — wearing a gold brocade robe and flanked on a palace balcony by his family — deliver a short speech calling for national unity.
This year’s 70th anniversary will not go unmarked. On Thursday morning, 770 monks were ordained during religious ceremonies at a newly built throne hall in the palace temple complex, and fireworks will accompany a candlelight gathering near the ceremonial Grand Palace. Long lines formed outside banks to buy for 100 baht a special commemorative 70-baht banknote, worth about $2 — encased in a yellow paper frame, the colour of the royalty. Commuter trains were packed with people wearing yellow shirts.
Bhumibol took the throne in 1946 as a teenage boy under difficult circumstances: His 20-year-old brother, King Ananda, had been shot dead in his palace bedroom.
The absolute monarchy had been ended by an army coup in 1932, leading to a series of military dictatorships. Old royalists slowly but successfully helped the young Bhumibol regain power and influence for the monarchy.
Their efforts were aided in no small part by the king’s charisma, rectitude and genuine devotion to seeing his nation develop. Admirers and critics alike credit the king with steering the nation through the turbulent decades of the 1960s and ’70s, when neighbouring countries fell prey to war and totalitarian rule.
“Being king for so long is an accomplishment,” Thai studies scholar Kevin Hewison wrote in recently published comments. He noted that the monarchy was in poor political and economic shape when Bhumibol took over, but he and advisers were “able to make it ‘great’ again, not to say wealthy, politically powerful and part of the what the elite likes to think is the fabric of Thai society.”
The royal palace doesn’t talk about the king much and it didn’t respond to calls for comment on this article. The king is widely loved by his people, but open discussion of the monarchy is an extremely sensitive because strict lese majeste laws make criticism of the royal family punishable by up to 15 years in prison.
The king is known to be the wealthiest monarch in the world with net wealth assessed by Forbes to be more than $30 billion, although most of it is owned by the crown as an institution, including land, a bank and an industrial conglomerate.
However, the past decade has taken a toll not only on the king’s health, but also on Thailand’s body politic. When Bhumibol spoke at his 60th anniversary in 2006 and called for unity, Thailand was sliding into crisis. A billionaire populist politician, Thaksin Shinawatra, had become prime minister, and his popularity and political power — rooted in electoral democracy — rubbed traditional royalist power-holders the wrong way.
Just three months after the king’s balcony speech, the army deposed Thaksin in a coup, setting off a sustained and sometimes violent political conflict that has left the country socially and politically polarized between Thaksin’s supporters — many of them poor rural residents — and opponents.
The barely concealed involvement of palace circles in the army takeover also dragged the monarchy down to the level of a political player, tarnishing its image as an honest broker above the fray. Thaksin’s opponents ostentatiously touted their royalist credentials. Bhumibol was still widely admired, but the consensus that used to value a royally-supervised democracy over popular democracy was severely eroded.
Weakened by age and ill health, Bhumibol meanwhile was unable or unwilling to exercise his personal prestige to promote reconciliation, which he had often done in the past during coups and political conflicts.
Now there was a void. In 2014, the army stepped in again, and declared that it would be calling the shots, even if a promised 2017 election established a facade of democratic rule.
It also started enforcing vigorously a law that makes criticism of the monarchy a crime. Critics say the law’s loose interpretation has allowed the military government to detain even those criticizing the junta. Calls to the junta spokesman were not returned.
“Much of the old reverence is gone; even among royalists, it has been replaced by a politics of intolerance and persecution,” says Michael Montesano, a Thailand expert who works with Singapore’s Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. “At the same time, younger members of the royal family have, not least because the times have changed, been unable to play anything like the role that the king played decades ago.”
The accelerating decline in the king’s health underlines another concern: How smooth a succession can be arranged in a country where the vast majority of people have known no other king?
The king’s only son and heir apparent, 63-year-old Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, is a controversial figure, even among royalists. He does not command the same respect and affection as his father.
“Under the best of circumstances, the monarchy will in the future play a purely ceremonial, rather passive role. The tensions and rhetoric of the past decade, along with the emergence of a more politically aware electorate, mean that the widely accepted unifying role that the monarchy played in the past is probably over,” says Montesano.
In the absence of a unifying figure, there is fear that Thailand will descend into political turmoil as the rural supporters of Thaksin — already given a taste of their electoral power — will be emboldened to take on the so-called royalists who want to maintain the status quo and their power in what one expert defines as “royal democracy.”
“Royal democracy is only possible because of him. It is not an exaggeration to say that without him, royal democracy might not survive,” said Thongchai Winichakul, a Thai scholar and professor of history at University of Wisconsin-Madison. “Thailand’s political future is highly uncertain.”