Backstory: The king and Thai

The world's longest-reigning monarch can bring a nation to its knees - the old-fashioned way.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Inside a darkened movie theater, a young audience settles in to watch "The Da Vinci Code." Popcorn and drinks at hand, they wisecrack through movie trailers. Then, it's time for the feature presentation.

Well, almost time. A written notice appears on-screen in Thai and English: "Please pay respect to His Majesty the King." The audience quickly rises, and a soaring chorus fills the thea-ter, accompanied by a cascade of vintage newsreels of Thailand's King Bhumibol Adulyadej. As the king's anthem reaches its final crescendo, the screen digitally morphs into an image of the monarch's bespectacled face. Emotions are clearly stirred by the iconic face and song.

Then, as abruptly as it began, the anthem ends, the audience sits, and the flick begins.

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Across Thailand, the ritual plays out daily, from grubbiest fleapit to slickest multiplex. No law dictates the anthem sound; no law is needed in a nation steeped in royalist awe, where barely a republican squeak is heard.

The royals here hold a distinctly different sway over their world than in the West where tragicomic monarchies can inspire as much misty-eyed nationalism as fodder for tabloid entertainment.

King Bhumibol is invested with more than just the importance of bloodline and political power, he's a pious religious scholar and is seen by this Buddhist nation as divine. He's invariably described as "deeply revered," which probably understates the public love Thais have for "my King." His image is all over billboards and public buildings, on walls in private homes, and on currency (don't toss it around casually, his image makes money close to divine, too). Shops sell life-size cutouts of him to display at home.

In recent months, the visual reminders have multiplied as Thailand celebrates the 60th anniversary of the king assuming the throne in 1946. A surfeit of pageantry and pomp is planned to mark the ascension of the world's longest-reigning monarch, the ninth in the unbroken Chakkri dynasty that began in 1782.

Representatives of 26 monarchies are due to attend celebrations. Few boast the stature in their homelands that King Bhumibol does here. Nor do many of them intervene directly in politics and set the tone for public debate.

King Bhumibol did just that in April after a disputed election failed to produce a parliament. He called the election "undemocratic" and urged senior judges to either find a solution or resign. The election was annulled, and the crisis defused. Even the most ruthless politician or general heeds the guidance of "the holy lord above my head."

Mention "The King and I," which depicts Bhumibol's great-uncle, King Mongkut, as a swashbuckler swayed by an English governess, and the more polite rebuttals to Hollywood's stab at Thai royalty are "inaccurate," "insensitive," "unkind." The film is banned here.

To avoid the symbolic slur of someone being above a royal, commoners must prostrate themselves on the floor in the royal family's presence, and bridges are cleared before a royal motorcade passes beneath.

In 1992, after troops killed unarmed democracy demonstrators in Bangkok, the king summoned an Army general and the demonstration leader to the palace. In a live broadcast, the two men crouched on the carpet beneath the throne where the king sat impassively. The king's first line to the supplicants dripped sarcasm: "It may come as a surprise why I asked you to come and meet in this manner." That was a career-ender.

These traditions are deeply imbibed because most Thais see their royalty as enduring links to a glorious past. However, King Bhumibol's reign isn't quite the unbroken continuum portrayed by mythmakers. His long reign could be seen as a restoration of the prestige and purpose of an institution that has lost its relevance elsewhere.

Born in Cambridge, Mass. in 1927, Bhumibol grew up abroad. A military coup in 1932 ended an absolute monarchy and brought a protracted power struggle. He was crowned in 1946 after his elder brother died, shot in bed, a year into his reign, Never explained officially, it was referred to by Bhumibol as "not an accident, not a suicide."

The young monarch was little more than a figurehead, spending his first few years on the throne finishing law and politics studies in Switzerland, and then marrying Queen Sirikit.

But in the late '50s, the military government turned to the monarchy as a unifying force. The king's image reappeared in public places, and long-abandoned rituals, including prostration and royal barge processions, were revived. King Bhumibol began to tour the nation and engross himself in rural development, which became central to his popular image as a ruler in touch with his people's needs. Last month, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan flew to Bangkok to present the king with an award for his work on sustainable development.

"The public perception is that he [the King] is deeply engaged in development," explains Michael Connors, author of "Democracy and National Identity in Thailand." "That's a powerful image in a developing country with lots of people living in rural areas."

By comparison, Britain's Prince Charles is a dabbler. King Bhumibol holds several patents on rainmaking equipment and has devised complex hydrology projects (dams, mostly), in addition to writing books, making art, and composing music.

In recent years, the elderly king has pared down his public calendar and his health is a national obsession, though rarely spoken of openly. Likewise, discussion of his presumed heir, the crown prince, is muted, both by respect for the institution and strict lèse-majesté laws that carry jail terms of up to 15 years.

Recently, as politicians have hurled mud, there's been a surge in lèse-majesté complaints - dozens of cases are pending. One magazine editor was summoned for publishing an article by a dissident who was twice charged with lèse-majesté in the past. Nor do foreigners get off the hook: A Frenchman was busted in 1995 for insulting a Thai princess on a flight to Bangkok. He spent a few days in jail.

Such protection is far from the paparazzi trails left by European monarchs. In Thailand, peering behind the gilt facade of the royal household is sport for only the brave and foolhardy. The king has occasionally suggested that he was open to constructive criticism, but nobody appears ready publicly to take the bait.

TV channels air several minutes of nightly news on the royal family, but the public is left to speculate (behind closed doors, and even then with a glance over the shoulder) on such curiosities as Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn. He's a US-trained Air Force pilot, who took part in anti-communist offensives in the 1970s, and has had three known consorts, one of whom he married and divorced, and two common-law wives.

But, while King Bhumibol's public appearances grow fewer, his cult of personality is undiminished. Elsewhere, this might be called propaganda. But Thais universally see it differently. "The king does everything for us. He really loves Thailand and his citizens," waxes Anavach Ongvasith, an executive at Major Cineplex.

Last year, Major Cineplex asked director Rashane Limtrakul to produce a new presidential salute. His lavish minute-plus film is about a Buddhist king rescued from stormy seas by a goddess. "I wanted to make people remember why you stand up [for the king at theaters]," he explains. Instead of ending on the customary image of the king, the film shows the royal family, with the crown prince in a prominent position.

A subtle way of preparing moviegoers for the inevitable royal succession? No, says Mr. Anavach: "We try to remind people to love the royal family. It's not only the king."

Any feedback from the palace? Oh yes, Anavach says, the king loves this one. "Our king is an artist," he says proudly.

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