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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 / June 12, 2006


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.

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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.

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.