Thai King Dead — Thailand’s King Bhumibol Adulyadej dead at 88 — RIP King Bhumibol Adulyadej

Thailand Mourns Death of King Bhumibol Adulyadej & Prepares For Funeral Thai people turn out to show support for king.. Thailand was plunged into mourning Thursday with the death of King

The 88-year-old Thailand Beloved King Bhumibol Adulyadej had been ailing for many years,  he was the superlative monarch. He was the world’s longest-reigning, the world’s richest and, among his own subjects at least, the world’s most adored. Throughout his 70 years on the throne, Bhumibol has been credited with staving off numerous catastrophes through intelligence, fortitude and his love of country. Yet in the decade approaching his death on Thursday at the age of 88, his kingdom, Thailand, has been increasingly wracked by bitter political schisms.

Bhumibol’s body will rest in Bangkok’s spired Grand Palace in a golden urn, draped in silk, gold and diamonds, for an official grieving period of one year, as Brahmin priests and Buddhist monks, wreathed in incense smoke, chant incantations.
The palace announced that the King died “peacefully” at 3:53 p.m. local time. “Even though the board of doctors has closely monitored and treated him to the best of its abilities, the King’s condition never improved but deteriorated until Thursday,” the palace said.

Junta leader Prayuth Chan-ocha announced that Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn would be the new monarch in accordance with the constitution, the Associated Press reports. “He was a King that was loved and adored by all. The reign of the king has ended and his kindness cannot be found anywhere else,” Prayuth said.

Bhumibol’s impending death was a source of deep anxiety in Thailand. Very few Thais are old enough to have known another King, presenting a challenge for his only son and named heir, Vajiralongkorn. A former military air-force pilot trained in the U.S., U.K and Australia, the 63-year-old has struggled to win the same respect as his father, primarily the result of stories of a lavish and eccentric lifestyle. Many wondered whether one of the three princesses would ascend the throne instead.

 

Wrangling over the sensitive subject of succession, and thus control of the royal fortune, is what many observers attribute the nation’s latest military coup d’état of May 22, 2014. The instability wrought by the coup and martial law has had a dire effect: the Thai economy is flatlining and Bangkok has been shaken by terrorist attacks and elections have been repeatedly pushed back by the ruling junta.

This also presents a challenge for U.S. foreign policy, especially the Obama Administration’s “rebalancing” to Asia. Without strong regional partners — Thailand is America’s oldest ally in Asia — maintaining support for regional strategic goals will be tough, throwing into doubt the broader geopolitical objective of being a counterweight to China. Faced with international censure for human-rights abuses, the junta has been moving closer to Beijing, repatriating persons of interest to China without little regard to international condemnation. With the issue of succession resolved, Washington will hope that democracy can be restored and a crucial relationship repaired.

King Bhumibol Adulyadej leaves the Siriraj Hospital for a birthday ceremony at the Grand Palace, Bangkok, Thailand, Dec. 5, 2011.
James Nachtwey
King Bhumibol Adulyadej leaves the Siriraj Hospital for a birthday ceremony at the Grand Palace in Bangkok on Dec. 5, 2011
The late King himself had a strong personal connection to the U.S. The muggy monsoonal heat of Bangkok where Bhumibol passed was a world apart from his birth on a frosty morning at Mount Auburn Hospital in Cambridge, Mass. The only monarch ever born on American soil arrived on Dec. 5, 1927, during a turbulent period in the Kingdom of Siam, as Thailand was then known, where myriad parties were plotting to end the absolute rule of the crown. Whether this would take the form of a constitutional monarchy, as eventually came to the fore in Britain, or an outright republic, as bloodily forged in Russia and France, was anyone’s guess. And so Bhumibol and his elder brother Ananda, who was heir to the throne of their uncle, King Prajadhipok, were first ensconced in the U.S. and later to the safety of Lausanne, a city perched on the shores of Lake Geneva in the Swiss Alps. There they grew up under the care of their formidable commoner mother, Srinagarindra née Sangwal Talapat, following the premature death of their father, Prince Mahidol Adulyadej, who was a pioneering doctor as well as Prajadhipok’s brother.

Ananda and Bhumibol’s formative years were spent speaking French and attending Champ Soleil boarding school, and later the progressive École Nouvelle de la Suisse Romande. Bhumibol was a diligent student, according to Sangwal, who wrote that the young prince “understands the importance of studies.” This Western-style upbringing, joshing with friends and surrounded by a smattering of servants, who did not prostrate themselves, was utterly alien from their celestial heritage, and thus a source of consternation back in Bangkok. There was neither a Buddhist temple nor a single saffron-robed monk in Lausanne, and aside from a few amulets and statues at home, the princes grew up immersed in the trapping of continental Christianity. “They hiked in the mountains and skied the snow-covered peaks while most Thai kids frolicked in steamy rice paddies with water buffaloes,” writes journalist Paul Handley in The King Never Smiles, his controversial 2006 biography of Bhumibol that remains banned in Thailand. By the end of World War II, adds Handley, “both were better suited for the life of well-heeled bon vivants in Europe than golden-robed, sacral princes in an impoverished tropical Asian state.”

Unencumbered by kingly burden, Bhumibol was by all accounts a joyful and healthy child, though the same was not true of his brother, the crown prince. Following his uncle’s abdication in March 1935, Ananda was proclaimed monarch, but was so sickly that he would not set foot in his realm until 1938 at the age of 13. The crown’s last vestiges of real power had been stripped away following a coup d’état in 1932, but the feuding elite factions that controlled Thailand were content to have a weak king on the throne to provide the facade of legitimacy.

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LIFE IN PICTURES: KING BHUMIBOL ADULYADEJ OF THAILAND
People in front of an image of King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand during a celebration of his 84th birthday, Bangkok, Thailand, Dec. 5, 2011.
King Bhumibol Adulyadej leaves the Siriraj Hospital for a birthday ceremony at the Grand Palace, Bangkok, Thailand, Dec. 5, 2011.
Prince Bhumibol (left), now King Bhumibol Adulyadej, with his brother Prince Ananda in Lausanne, Switzerland, March 7, 1935.
King Bhumibol Adulyadej, 21, with his future wife Sirikit Kitiyakara, 17, in Pully, Switzerland, in 1949.
James Nachtwey
People in front of an image of King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand during a celebration of his 84th birthday, Bangkok, Thailand, Dec. 5, 2011.

However, on June 9, 1946, just days before the family’s scheduled return to Europe, Ananda was found dead in his bed in Boromphiman Throne Hall at Bangkok’s Grand Place. Age 20, he had been shot through the head with a Colt 45, a gift from a former U.S. Army officer, which he kept by his bedside. Bhumibol was proclaimed King Rama IX of Siam’s Chakri dynasty that same day, though he would not be crowned until 1950, after the official name change to Thailand, meaning, Land of the Free. He spent the interim period back in Switzerland, ostensibly to finish his studies (he never did graduate), but by some accounts hopelessly disconsolate. Speaking to BBC reporter David Lomax in 1980, casually lounging on the floor of his study, Bhumibol looked pained as he recalled his brother’s demise: “When I arrived he was already dead. Many people wanted to advance, not theories but facts, to clear up the affair. They were suppressed and they were suppressed by influential people in this country or international politics.”

A trio of palace courtiers were sentenced to death for regicide, even though few believed them responsible, and many suspected that Ananda had died by suicide or through an accident. Notwithstanding his professed suspicions of subterfuge, Bhumibol failed to stop the executions of the three supposed King slayers, despite being the only figure capable of issuing a pardon.

The crown Bhumibol inherited was essentially the same vessel Ananda had worn, though several factors conspired to allow the young King to build arguably the most politically active constitutional monarchy of the 20th century. First, arch royalist General Sarit Thanarat seized power in a September 1957 coup, to which Bhumibol gave his blessing. A notorious womanizer and lush, Sarit in return cemented the link between the military and the monarchy, placing Bhumibol at society’s zenith. “From that point on he’s been the preeminent figure in Thailand,” says Charles Keyes, professor emeritus of anthropology and international studies at the University of Washington.

Read More: See Portraits of Thailand’s King Bhumibol Adulyadej Displayed All Over Bangkok

Domestic efforts dovetailed with external factors — chiefly the Vietnam War and strong support from Washington for this U.S.-born, Western-educated, statesman-like, modern monarch. The young King played saxophone with jazz legends like Duke Ellington, won prizes for sailing, was a keen amateur photographer and painted expressionist oils. Frequenting cocktail parties with his beautiful and enchanting Queen Sirikit Kitiyakara, the gangly, bespectacled Bhumibol appeared to the American chattering classes as a righteous ally and regional bulwark amid the existential struggle with communism.

This seismic shift in U.S. attitudes is demonstrated by contrasting two TIME covers. In 1950, when Bhumibol returned from Europe for his official coronation, the April 3 edition sported a caricature of the young King in full royal pomp with the headline: “In a Never-Never Land, Never Mind.” Sixteen years later, with Washington mired in the Vietnam War, TIME portrayed a steely Bhumibol in full military uniform with the caption: A Monarchy Fights for Freedom.

According to Paul Good, who worked for the U.S. Information Service in Thailand from 1963 to ’68, inculcating antipathy to communism was expressly achieved through imparting reverence for the monarchy. The theory was that “if the people were supportive of the King,” says Good, “that he would be the binding force, the focal point for all attention, and there wouldn’t be any susceptibility to the communist influence, which was coming in on the Laotian and Cambodian sides from Vietnam.”

Huge posters of Bhumibol, paid for by the U.S., were distributed across northern Thailand, where disenfranchised villagers were most vulnerable to communist ideals and infiltration. Archaic traditions of reverence, like prostration before the monarch, were reintroduced, and Buddhist temples and festivals were infused with royal imagery. The Thai media followed royal movements avidly, especially after the arrival of Princess Ubol Ratana in 1951 and Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn a year later. Princesses Sirindhorn and Chulabhorn were born in 1955 and 1957 respectively.

By 1958, Sarit had abrogated the constitution, halted elections and imposed even stricter limitations on free speech. But as he remained friendly with the U.S., and staunchly anticommunist, Washington was delighted to hitch its warhorse to his wagon, and Bhumibol’s exultation gathered pace.

Read More: Thais Are Praying for the Recovery of Ailing King Bhumibol Adulyadej

The royal family’s public-relations campaign had begun in earnest before Bhumibol’s return, as senior princes began distributing money and funding social-welfare projects, and Sarit allowed the palace room to swell its influence. Bhumibol and Sirikit spent much of their time touring villages and meeting pastoral Thais, typically illiterate with lips stained red from chewing betel, most of whom had had little contact with officialdom. The royal couple traveled with a small army of doctors and the ill or suffering would be brought out for treatment. Those who couldn’t be cured locally were transported to hospitals in the capital Bangkok.

In this way, Bhumibol fostered an image of royalty as distinct from government. Where politicians and bureaucrats failed in their duty, the King would strive to plug the gaps through his own munificence. In speeches, he would frequently chide politicians. And with his background in engineering, which he had studied at university, he busied himself with overseeing the construction of small dams and irrigation projects — water conservation was traditionally the purview of Thai monarchs — so saving the countryside’s poor from the extra hardships wrought by droughts. There have been well over 4,000 such development projects, and the sight of Bhumibol, armed with a notebook, two-way radio and camera, earnestly studying a map of some far-flung hamlet, became very much part of royal folklore. Some projects were more successful than others, and a few were disastrous, but there was no doubting the King’s sincerity nor diligence.

Following Sarit’s death in 1963, Thailand began to open politically as the government of Field Marshall Thanom Kittikachorn, another fiercely anticommunist strongman, rolled back restrictions on free speech. Student discussion groups began springing up at major universities that encouraged critical evaluation, often with a leftish slant. By 1973, this had developed into a cohesive political movement.

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