Thailand’s King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the longest-reigning monarch in the world and the ninth ruler in the unbroken Chakri dynasty, is dead. A reign that began at the age of 18 more than 70 years ago, after his older brother and predecessor King Ananda Mahidol was found shot through the head in Bangkok’s Grand Palace, has ended today in the capital’s Siriraj Hospital, according to a palace statement. Bhumibol has spent long periods cloistered from the public eye through years of declining health.
Enormously beloved and regarded as semi-divine by his people, Bhumibol – also known as Rama IX – was only four years old when the absolute monarchy of Siam was overthrown and the country’s first constitution established. Since his accession just 14 years later, Bhumibol has presided over a country that has been torn apart by a bloody cycle of military coups, fierce demonstrations and brief bouts of uneasy truce. The king’s role in this maelstrom of coup and counter-coup remains a source of bitter controversy, with the right hand of Rama alternately seen as a steady hand safeguarding the nation’s people and an iron grip keeping them down.
Born in Cambridge, Massachusetts during his father’s studies at Harvard University, Bhumibol would go on to study science at Switzerland’s Lausanne University before switching his major to political studies and law upon the still-unexplained death of his brother (variously attributed to misfortune, suicide, Japanese assassins or – most dubiously – Bhumibol himself). Unique among the world’s monarchs, Bhumibol holds several patents for rain-making and waste-water aeration technology, a seemingly symbolic fusion of the king’s modern Western education and traditional role at the centre of Thailand’s rain and water festivals.
An accomplished jazz composer, author and sailor, Bhumibol was granted honorary membership into the Vienna Institute of Music and the Arts at the age of 32. Hailed as the “Development King” by his international supporters, Bhumibol was presented with the United Nations’ first Human Development Lifetime Achievement Award in 2006 by then-secretary-general Kofi Annan, who described the monarch as a “visionary thinker” for his so-called ‘Sufficiency Economy’ philosophy centred around moderation and self-reliance at the fundamental level of survival. According to his official biography, Bhumibol initiated more than 4,000 development projects across agriculture, irrigation and public health. “If human development is about putting people first,” said Annan, “there can no better advocate for it than His Majesty.”
For his critics, though, the king leaves behind a legacy of repression, human rights abuses and the unflagging support of military strongmen responsible for the violent overthrow of the country’s democratically elected governments. Although praised for his early interventions in Thailand’s mercurial political scene – including a memorable incident following the shooting of several anti-coup demonstrators where both the protest leader and the general in question were literally brought to their knees before a television crew for a vigorous scolding from his majesty – Bhumibol was repeatedly accused of propping up would-be dictators. In the words of journalist Paul Handley’s swiftly banned biography The King Never Smiles, several of the nation’s coups – and by some counts that number reached as high as ten during Bhumibol’s reign alone – “took place in the throne’s name and with the palace’s quiet nod”.
Also controversial was the king’s place at the centre of Thailand’s internationally condemned lèse majesté laws that made dissent, criticism and even public discussion of his majesty’s health and succession punishable by imprisonment. A 1976 ruling strengthening the laws has remained perhaps the most stable clause in the country’s whirlwind constitutions, maintaining that “the King shall be enthroned in a position of revered worship and shall not be violated. No person shall expose the King to any sort of accusation or action”. In practical terms, these laws have been used by various regimes to quash political opposition and perpetrate acts of baffling oppression, such as the sentencing of a 61-year-old man to 20 years in prison for texting messages apparently offensive to the queen’s person.
While the outcome of the succession is still difficult to predict, King Bhumibol’s death may deal an irrevocable blow to the authority of the Thai monarchy, his carefully cultivated cult of personality having long since outpaced the palace’s prestige. If so, Bhumibol will be remembered as the last true king of Thailand – and treasured by the millions who mourn him.