A New Dawn: Thailand After King Bhumibol

A New Dawn: Thailand After King Bhumibol
Photo Credit: AP / 達志影像
What you need to know

Thailand's grieving population must now chart their own path.

The passing of King Bhumibol Adulyadej brings Thailand as we know it to a close. Over a seven-decade reign, the late monarch presided over Thailand’s climb from a village backwater to a modern nation. His glorious reign was enabled by conditions and circumstances that were uniquely suited for his leadership. But he has left behind a grieving and grateful population who must now chart their own path into an uncertain future.

Foreign audiences are easily bewildered by the intense affection the Thai people harbour for King Bhumibol. When he celebrated his 60th year on the throne in June 2006, hundreds of thousands of Thais lined Bangkok’s thoroughfares to catch a glimpse of their monarch and to celebrate the milestone with him. In his final twilight they flocked to the hospital where he stayed in order to pray and pay their last respects.

When the leader of Thailand’s junta, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, publicly announced his passing on 13 October, many tears were shed. The Thai people knew the day would come but they wanted to hang on to the reign for as long as possible because it had done so well for them.

The Thai people’s treatment of their collective father figure can come across as god worship characteristic of born-again evangelicals or the manufactured adulation common in North Korea. But in the Thai kingdom, the late monarch enjoyed reverence and respect that are organic from the bottom up.

Such adoration derives from the Cold War decades, when Thailand had to go it alone as the last domino that withstood communist expansionism in Southeast Asia. In rapid succession during April–May 1975, Cambodia fell to the Maoist Khmer Rouge, Saigon to the North Vietnamese Army and Laos to communist insurgents. On Thailand’s western front, then-Burma became reclusive and autarkic from 1962.

At home, Thailand was poor, beset with regular blackouts, unreliable waterworks and unpaved roads in most places. It was in these early years of economic development that King Bhumibol exerted efforts beyond the call of duty and built an indelible bond with his people. He traversed far-flung corners of the land — at some risk as the local communist insurgency was making headway — to promote agricultural production, irrigation, infrastructure construction and a myriad of public goods.

A core component of the Thai national identity, the late King lived a modest life when it could have been lavish, and endured hardship when comfort was available. He gave Thailand a unifying, rallying symbol behind which to thwart external threats and to believe in their country’s immense potential in the wider world.

Detractors and critics will say all that was achieved came at the great cost of a long period of authoritarian rule by the military, that development was lopsided in favour of the urban elite and that democratic development was stunted by repeated coups that kept the military–monarchy symbiosis front and centre in Thai society.

These points are not invalid, but they do not discount the reality that Thailand would not be where it is today without King Bhumibol as a force of personality who led by example with unsurpassable moral authority. His achievement is self-evident in view of the harsher times that befell Thailand’s neighbours over the same period.

By virtue of his success, the late monarch has left behind a modern country that now has to come to new terms. While the military junta will play an instrumental role in the transition to a new monarch, elections and democratic rule cannot be denied forever. Popular voices have been heard time and again calling for a collective self-determined future. For this reason, the monarchy King Bhumibol rebuilt will not be the same under his successor.

The imperatives of democratic rule require a 21st century monarchy, operating within a renegotiated constitutional order. Brokering and institutionalising this compromise is Thailand’s way forward.

The News Lens has been authorized to republish this article from East Asia Forum.

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Editor: Edward White