Remembering Thailand’s beloved King Bhumibol

World’s longest-serving monarch worked for unity in a country mired by political turmoil, coups, and military rule.

King Bhumibol Adulyadej was highly revered among Thai people during his seven decades on the throne [Getty Images]

Bangkok, Thailand – Long revered by Thais as god-like, the world’s longest reigning monarch – His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej – has died at 88.

King Bhumibol, also known as Rama IX of the Chakri Dynasty, served 70 years as the constitutional monarch of the Southeast Asian nation.

He has been praised as a constant force of unification in often tumultuous Thailand, addressing the needs of both urban and rural populations, as well as moderating infighting among the nation’s divided political parties.

Tirelessly striving to maintain the monarchy’s influence amid a dozen coups, periods of military rule, and the killing of protesters, King Bhumibol’s influence on the nation was undeniable.

Thailand’s King Bhumibol Adulyadej dies at 88

He’s often referred to as the “People’s King” and will long be revered by those who bestowed this nickname upon him. His widespread social projects and development programmes secured him near-deity status, ensuring his legacy will persevere in a country with long-standing traditions of patriotism and loyalty to the royal family.

“The king is my life,” artist Kitithat Ekanansiri, 49, told Al Jazeera. “He brought the electricity and developed our village, and I know he treated all of us [Thai people] the same. He is the centre of Thais.”  

King Bhumibol of Thailand in 1978 [Getty Images]
King Bhumibol of Thailand in 1978 [Getty Images]

Few monarchs in history have earned the absolute adoration of their subjects to the same extent. His portraits, simultaneously stoic and benevolent, are displayed proudly in living rooms, shops, and public spaces throughout the country.

Sansoen Phra Barami, the royal anthem, is equally prominent, playing in cinemas, on television, and at the opening of every cultural event of note.

While such ceremony would likely be seen as an inconvenience in many Western nations, the vast majority of Thais rise to their feet or pause in respect for the king’s history of public service.

Every year on December 5, tens of thousands of Thais dressed uniformly in yellow – the colour of the monarchy – flooded the streets and parks surrounding Bangkok’s royal palace for Bhumibol’s birthday. The night sky filled with floating fire-lanterns lit by crowds in honour of their “Father the King”.

As is the case with many monarchs, Thais initially respected King Bhumibol out of an obligation to tradition. But as his contributions to society grew in number and scale, that respect morphed into something more akin to love.

“The king is more than the father of Thai people. When the country was on fire, he was the only person who could put it out,” said Pan Buapradit, 59, a retired soldier. 

Achievements as ‘Father’ 

King Bhumibol was also portrayed as the “Development King”. He had a diverse skill set and dedicated much of his reign to royal projects that developed infrastructure at the forefront of providing food and basic necessities for his people, by his people.

These projects were started as self-conducted experiments in the gardens of Chitralada Villa, at his majesty’s personal residence, the Dusit Palace. Experiments were conducted in agriculture, forestry, and small-scale industry. Once deemed successful, projects were made available to his people and implemented all over Thailand.

Since his ascension to the throne, the king made regular visits to many rural and impoverished communities and sites, resulting in the implementation of some 3,000-plus projects since 1952.

“He created plenty of royal projects to give jobs for the poor to improve the quality of Thai people’s lives, and even to create artificial rain to solve the drought issue,” Pan said. “He took care of us in every aspect. Nobody will ever be able to do for us as much as he did.”

King Bhumibol received several awards during his lifetime, most notably the first UNDP Human Development Lifetime Achievement Award presented by then UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. The accolade hailed the monarch’s tireless efforts to help the kingdom’s most poor and vulnerable people.

IN PICTURES: The life of Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej

The monarch’s activities varied as different political regimes came to power over the course of his rule.

He famously became the first monarch since the Siamese Revolution of 1932 to boat down the Chao Praya River to offer robes to Buddhist temples during the 700-year-old Thai ceremony Krabuan Phayuhayattra Chonlamak. This Royal Barge Procession ceremony took place 16 times during his reign.

A King Bhumibol Adulyadej portrait at Siriraj Hospital in 2014 [Getty Images]
A King Bhumibol Adulyadej portrait at Siriraj Hospital in 2014 [Getty Images]

King Bhumibol also played a key role in Thailand’s transition into democracy.

During deadly unrest in 1992, he urged opposition leaders General Suchinda Kraprayoon and retired Major-General Chamlong Srimuang to find a peaceful solution, and during a televised event, the two knelt before him in respect of royal protocol.

His royal intervention led to a general election that resulted in the formation of a civilian government – earning him great respect from his nation.

In 1997, the Asia financial crisis struck Thailand, devastating its economy.

“He turned the crisis into the opportunity to teach us to live in a [self-]sufficient way,” Anucha Thirakanont, 47, an academic, told Al Jazeera. “We will not see anybody work for the country as hard as him and we will never see Thai people love and respect anybody as much as him.”

Personal life

Bhumibol was the son of HRH Prince Mahidol Adulyadej and HRH Princess Srinagarindra.

He was born on December 5, 1927, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in the United States, the only king of Thailand born outside of the country.

His uncle Rama VII named him Bhumibol Adulyadej, an auspicious and prophetic name that translates to “Strength of the land” or “Incomparable power”.

Well-wishers hold a picture of the king [Jorge Silva/Reuters]
Well-wishers hold a picture of the king [Jorge Silva/Reuters]

King Bhumibol and his two siblings spent most of their formative years in Switzerland under the watchful eye of their mother after their father’s death in 1929. His older brother, Ananda Mahidol, became the eighth king of Thailand at the age of nine.

After World War II and Japanese occupation, the family returned to Thailand. In June 1946, King Ananda died in his bedroom from a single gunshot wound to the head. His death has never fully been explained.

After his brother’s death, Bhumibol ascended the throne and returned to Switzerland, where he redirected his studies at the University of Lausanne from science and technology to law and political science to better prepare himself for rule.

It was during this period of the new king’s life that he met his future wife, Rajawongse Sirikit, on a trip to Paris. The couple were engaged in July 1949 and married on April 28, 1950.

Bhumibol was crowned King of Thailand on May 5, 1950.

With the stabilising force of the beloved monarch now gone, many questions about Thailand’s future remain.

“I think that the new generation knows about the king through their lessons in schools or their family, but they do not have direct experience like their parents,” said Chollada Hutayon, a 27-year-old engineer.

“Therefore, some may not feel as much, and this can cause a big change for Thailand.”

Thai people cry after Royal Palace's announcement outside Siriraj hospital where King Bhumibol Adulyadej died [Sakchai Lalit/AP]
Thai people cry after Royal Palace’s announcement outside Siriraj hospital where King Bhumibol Adulyadej died [Sakchai Lalit/AP]
Source: Al Jazeera