Backstory: The king and Thai
The world's longest-reigning monarch can bring a nation to its knees - the old-fashioned way.
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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."Skip to next paragraph
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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.