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MAN OF THE CENTURY

December 5, 1999 -- As he marks the Sixth Cycle Celebration today and looks forward to the 55th year of his reign, King Bhumibol Adulyadej has become the world's most popular and revered living monarch.

For more than half the century, he has become the living symbol of unity and stability, guiding Thailand through the uneventful period, from the Cold War, the Vietnam War, the domestic military and political upheavals, the struggling democracy to the economic crisis of the late 1990s.

Under his reign of constitutional monarchy Thailand has come mostly under the military regime. There have been 17 coups, of which seven are successful. The last one was staged in February 1992. And there have been a total of 23 prime ministers swearing an oath of office before him and struggling to form governments one after another.

As the political leaders may come and go, the monarch, as an institution, endures. For the King's existence and charisma guarantee the legitimacy of the existing social and property order. It also renders a necessary sense of continuity of the nation as a whole.

In the face of the periodic threats, from either the outside or the inside, to divide the country, the King has stepped in each time, privately or publicly, to provide the crucial leadership. In this way he acts as a pillar of political authority, albeit in a non-political way. And in doing so, he achieves the delicate task of asking for all contradictory elements to reconcile.

This is the essence, if not the mystique, of his kingship, forged through the years of his determination to attain perfection of all the virtues.

As keeper of the Buddhist faith, he reigns his country with the moral authority and righteousness.

 

Greatest Thai of the Century

Virtually, there are no other figures in the 20th century who have come to dominate the Thai life, the Thai institutions and the Thai culture like King Rama the Ninth of the Chakri Dynasty.

King Rama the Fifth, who abolished slavery and engineered the reform process that transformed Siam into a modern state, was considered one of the greatest Chakri kings and one of the most admirable figures of the 20th Century. Like his father, King Mongkut, or King Rama the Fourth, King Chulalongkorn had to deal with the colonial powers. He guided the old Siam through the dangerous period with shrewd diplomacy, helping the country to narrowly escape colonisation.

But, as pointed out by David K Wyatt in his Studies in Thai History, King Chulalongkorn, who reigned for 42 years until the year 1910, was largely a 19th Century figure, ranking among such world leaders as Garibaldi, Bismarck, Gladstone, Disraeli, the Meiji Emperor, Li Hung-chang, and Abraham Lincoln.

After King Chulalongkorn, the Chakri Dynasty, founded in 1782 by Phra Phutthayodfa Chulalok or King Rama the First, became weakened. In 1932, during the reign of King Prachathipok, or King Rama the Seventh, a revolution was staged and successfully toppled absolute monarchy. The Thai monarchy system, embedded for more than 700 years successively in the long Thai history, was in deep peril.

 One of the leaders of this revolutionary movement was Pridi Phanomyong, father of the Thai democracy and another towering figure of the 20th Century. His main problem was that he was too far ahead of his time with his brilliant political and social ideas. Later Pridi became a subject of a political purge and ended his tragic life in exile.

The circumstances under which King Bhumibol Adulyadej came to the throne in 1946 were precarious. This followed the sudden death of his brother, King Ananda Mahidol or King Rama the Eighth. It was only 14 years after the Revolution. World War II just ended a year before. The military virtually dominated the political landscape.

As Anand Panyarachun, a former prime minister, told Asiaweek (Dec 3, 1999): "The current King came to the throne soon after the so-called revolution - the transformation of absolute power to constitutional democracy. He was in the picture at the most critical and sensitive times during this transition period. He had to walk the tightrope. And he has always delivered."

King Bhumibol Adulyadej set his sight on recreating the monarchy institution literally from scratch. He had virtually no economic, military or political support. But that allowed him, in his own unique way, to render a new dimension to the kingship he inherited. He reached out to the Thai people directly by focusing on social and economic development. He played a key role in introducing technology on farmland and water resource management to help improve the people's living conditions.

His charisma immediately earned him popular and unquestionable support from the Thai people.

It is from this stronghold of the grass-root support that the King has gradually strengthened his kingship and transformed it into a pragmatic monarchy institution, unprecedented in the modern era. In other words, he has been able to adjust his kingship, change it with time and retain its mythical attribute. Other institutions have found it more difficult to go through the structural changes.

 

Old Traditions vs Modernity

Two important events this year exemplify how the King stands at the centre of the two confrontational forces: the old traditions and modernity. As part of the Sixth Cycle Celebration, the King, on Nov 4th, revived the ancient tradition of a royal procession down the Chao Phya River with the glittering barges.

By doing so, the King revived the ancient tradition that dated back to the Ayudhya period. The King set sail on the Suphannahongse in the afternoon from the Vasukri pier to preside over the Kathin merit-making ceremony, marking the end of the Buddhist Lent, at the Temple of the Dawn.

Thousands of Thais flocked both sides of the Chao Phya River to witness this spectacular and most colourful event. There were a total of 52 barges featuring different august animals. Some had tears brimming in their eyes when they saw their King float by in the Suphannahongse. They almost unconsciously held their hands in the wai position.

In one of the old Thai tradition, parents, particularly the mothers, weep with joy when they witness their sons entering the monkhood. For the mothers believe that they can hang on the yellow robe of their sons to enter heaven after their death.

In this similar metaphor and imagery, the Thai people held their King at once as a symbol of a profound religious experience. The pictureque procession of the barges was almost surreal, like a mural painting that had been brought alive. Travelling from the Vasukri pier to the Temple of the Dawn, the King symbolically led the Thais from the realm of the world to the realm of the sacredness as part of the aim to attain supreme tranquility.

This royal ritual established a sense of identity, offering a transcendental experience into which the future and the past unite.

Another event was the commission, Nov 25th, of the Pasak Jolsid Dam, which provides irrigation and feed thousands of Thai families in the Pasak River Basin. The project, of which the King is so proud, covers Lopburi and a part of Saraburi.

Under his reign, the King initiated thousands of reservoir projects, mostly small and medium scale. But the Pasak Jolsid Dam is one of the large-scale projects, which can hold a maximum water level of 960 million cubic metres. The commission of this dam reinforces his readiness to employ modern technology to help improve the quality of life of his people.

About 70 per cent of the Thai are living in the agricultural sector, which however accounts for only 12 per cent of the country’s gross domestic product. It is this sector of the population that he so cares about.

In 1993 the King made it known that he would like the dam built. Then he issued a prophetic note. He said by the time the dam was completed in 1999, he would be 72 and that he would go to Lopburi to open it if his health permitted.

His wish has been fulfilled.

 

"One-Reign" Subjects

When King Bhumibol Adulyadej ascended to the throne in 1946, there were only 20 million Thais. Now the Thai population has mushroomed to 62 million. Assuming that half of the 20 million born before his Coronation Year passed away, this means that some 52 million Thais are proud to claim that they are "one-reign" subjects, born in 1946 or thereafter.

Still, most of the now surviving 10 million of the 20 million must have been very young at that time. They have no way of remembering or can hardly recall how the Ninth Reign began. In this respect, the Ninth Reign has been embedded in the consciousness of the living Thais since the very beginning.

His pictures are placed on the walls practically in all the Thai homes. It is an enduring image, like the image of the omnipresent Buddha that all Thais grow up with.

It was the late MR Kukrit Pramoj, a former prime minister and a staunch royalist, who expounded how the Thai people identify their life span with the reign of the Thai kings, not with any other particular epochs. (Bill Clinton, the US president, identifies himself as a generation of baby-boomers born after World War II.)_

In his classic novel, The Four Reigns, Kukrit chronicled a life of a Thai lady, Ploi, whose life spanned between the reign of King Rama the Fifth and King Rama the Eighth. Ploi witnessed changes in the different reigns, from which she formed her frame of mind and values. It was an order that kept the Thai life together.

The fiction, based on a true story, ended by Ploi's receiving the news of the sudden demise of King Ananda Mahidol. She was completely shattered with the loss of this old order, could not cope with it and passed away shortly afterward. The Four Reigns is one the crown jewels of the Thai literature.

In the same spirit of The Four Reigns, the King Bhumibol has continued to provide the order for the Thai life through his longevity and the length of his reign.

King Bhumibol Adulyadej is well on his way to surpass King Rama the First in longevity. King Rama the First demised when he was 73 years old. Today, King Rama the Ninth observes his Sixth Cycle Celebration - each cycle comes with 12 years - or 72nd Birthday.

For the Thais, each cycle marks significant transformation of their life. When you reach 12, you are entering puberty. When you are 24, you are about to reach full adulthood and get ready for a marriage. When you are 36, you are at the height of your career and strength. When you are 48, your life is fully mature. When you are 60, you reach retirement. When you are 72, you are a complete man.

The year 1995 marked the 50th reign of His Majesty the King. But it was not until 1996 that he celebrated his Golden Jubilee. Now he is ending his 54th year of his reign and looking forward to the 55th year in the first year of the new millenium, or 2543 in the Thai Buddhist calendar.

King Bhumibol has already surpassed King Chulalongkorn in the length of his reign. He has become the longest reigning monarch of the Chakri Dynasty.

By Thanong Khanthong

 

 

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