KING BHUMIBOL ADULYADEJ

KING BHUMIBOL ADULYADEJ

The current reigning King of Thailand, King Bhumibol Adulyadej (Rama IX) is world's longest reigning monarch. Revered as a champion of the poor and a pillar of stability through many crises and coups, he took the throne in 1946 when he 23. King Bhumibol has endured through almost 30 prime ministers, 16 constitutions, and 18 coups. His face is on Thai coins and banknotes. His portrait is found in almost every office, classroom and home in Thailand. It also hangs from ploughs, taxi rearview mirrors and is kept in wallets and on chains as a talisman. At the start of every movie in Thailand, people rise as his image appears on the screen and the royal anthem plays.

The great-grandon of King Mongut, the King and I monarch, King Bhumibol (pronounced POOM-ee-pun) is the longest reigning king in Thai history and the longest reigning current head of state in the world as well as the current longest-reigning monarch in the world according to the Guinness Book of World Records . As one of the most revered monarchs in Thai history and one of the most respected leaders in the world, he has served as spiritual leader of his people for over six decades, acting as a symbol of stability and hope for a country often shaken by political upheaval. In addition, he has fostered numerous programs along with members of his royal family to bring economic prosperity to his people. He is also a musician, photographer, scientist, and considered a man of the people.

Although he is constitutional monarch with few clearly defined powers, King Bhumibol is the most beloved figure in Thailand, and respected with god-like reverence by the vast majority of Thais. Only the Buddha is adored more. "He is the unifying force of Thai society," a well-known Thai scholar told the New York Times. "he is the one who is a check on the system. He can tell us whether we are going in the right direction or the wrong direction. He is the standard of morality, of righteousness." One Thai political analyst told Time, “He is perhaps the only monarch anywhere who has total love and no fear.”

In Thailand, King Bhumibol is regarded as a "father and god," He celebrated his 60th anniversary on the thrown in 2006 and is the ninth king of the Chakri dynasty. His official title is Great King of Siam, the Chief Protector, Great Strength of the Land, Incomparable Power, the Most Renowned of the Mahidol Family and Refuge of the People. He turned 85 in 2012 and is very frail and largely confined to a wheelchair when he leaves the places and spends much of his time in hospitals. There are many doubts about whether he can make it to the 70th anniversary of his accession to the throne in 2016.

King Bhumibol’s complete name is: Phrabat Somdej Phra Paramindra Maha Bhumibol Adulyadej Mahitaladhibet Ramadhibodi Chakrinarubodindara Sayamindaradhiraj Boromanatbophit. A Thai government description of King Bhumibol goes: “Apart from his royal activities to help develop the country by developing agriculture, uplifting the people’s livelihood, and rehabilitating and conserving natural resources – such as his Sufficiency Economy philosophy, royal rainmaking project, Monkey’s Cheek weir project, and various royal projects – His Majesty also attaches great importance to the Thai people’s health; he has often stated that people in bad health would not be able to develop the country. Hence, numerous projects on medical and public health services came about. On the international front, His Majesty has wisely tightened relations between Thailand and various countries, by paying state visits to countries in Asia, America, and Europe, as well as welcoming leaders of those countries on their return visits as royal guests.”

Book: The Revolutionary King is a controversial biography about King Bhumibol by William Stevenson published in Britain. Even though the king proposed the idea of the book Thai publishers refuse to print it and the Thai media has been warned not even to quote the book. The King Who Never Smiles is an even more controversial book about the king by American journalist Paul Handley, who reported for several years from Thailand. The book was deemed “insulting to the king” and the website of the book’s publisher, Yale University Press, which ran a short summary of the book, was blocked.

King Bhumibol's Early Life

His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej was born at Mount Auburn Hospital in Cambridge, Massachusetts in the United States of America, at 8.45am on Monday December 5, 1927. The only monarch ever born on United States soil, he came into the world while his father was a student at Harvard Medical School. He attended school in Lausanne, Switzerland, where he studied music, engineering, and science and learned English, French and German. At Lausanne University he initially studied science before switching to subjects more applicable to occupation as king.

King Bhumibol was the youngest son of Mahidol of Songkla and his commoner wife Mon Sangwalya Mahidol (the Princess Mother) and a direct grandson of King Chulalonkorn (Rama V). He had one older sister, princes Gakayani Vadhana and one elder brother, His Majesty King Aananda Mahidol-Rama VIII. His father was a physician. He died young, forcing his mother to return home to Thailand.

All three of the children of Prince Mahidol Sangwal were born abroad, where Prince Mahidol traveled and studied medicine. Prince Mahidol died in 1929, leaving his wife to raise the three children alone. After Thailand’s absolute monarchy was abolished following a 1932 coup, Princess Sangwal and her children moved to Switzerland to get away from the maelstrom of politics. According to the Thai government the Princess Mother and her three children lived a simple life in switzerland. Under her care the three young royal members had leaned to become self reliant, to observe discipline and also help less privileged people.”

In 1935, Ananda was named king, though he spent most of the next decade, including World War 2, in neutral Switzerland. “We were in a small country and we were just monsieur, mademoiselle, not prince or princess,” Princess Galyani recalled in 2000. “Some people did not know we were a royal family. We were like Swiss children and we knew a simple life of ordinary people.”

During World War II, King Bhumibol remained outside of Thailand and when it became clear that he was next in line for the throne he switched his studies to law and political science and now holds in doctorate in those two subjects. While he was in university, he was involved in a car accident that caused him to lose one eye.

King Bhumibol Becomes King

The King's father, Prince Mahidol of Songkla, died less than two years after King Bhumibol was born. In 1935, King Prajadhipok (Rama VI) abdicated during a coup and King Aananda Mahidol-Rama VIII—King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s brother— was named the king at the of 10. King Aananda remained in Switzerland until the end of the war

Tragedy struck the family again, when Ananda was found shot dead in his bedroom at the Grand Palace at the age of 20 six months after returning to Thailand in 1946.The circumstance of his death have never been properly explained. I guess neither a suicide or a murder or even an accident looks good. Some Thais believe he was assassinated by a Japanese spy. The dead king’s pearl-handled revolver was found nearby. Bhumibol himself said, “It was not an accident, not a suicide, but what happened is very mysterious...it is political.”

King Bhumibol succeeded to the throne as the ninth king of the Chakri Dynasty at the age of 18 on June 9, 1946 on the same day his brother was killed. He never wanted to be king. Afer he was named king he returned to Switzerland to continue his studies. His formal coronation took place four years later in 1950, when he took the official coronation oath at the age of 23 to the sound of chanting monks and trumpeting conch shells. Other monarchs who took the throne at a young age include Queen Elizabeth of Britain who was 25 and Prince Rainer of Monaco who was 26.

As an the new king said at his coronation on May 5th 1950: “We shall reign with righteousness for the benefit and happiness of the Siamese people.” As he said this the King poured ceremonial water symbolizing the dedication of his whole being to the task of reigning over Thailand according to the Moral Principals of the Sovereign.

Pictures of King Bhumibol’s coronation procession show the king wearing dark sunglasses and what looks like a Thai adaption of an Australian outback hat. He sits on a throne being carried on thick bamboo supports by men in traditional costumes and protected from the sun by seven-level parasols. Stanley A. Weiss wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “The royal navy was drawn up for review. A jet squadron soared overhead. Half a million people lined the streets in celebration. As one biographer writes, ‘To astrologers, the heavens proved the great event: three days before Bhumibol arrived, hail fell on Bangkok for the first time since 1933.’" [Source: Stanley A. Weiss, Los Angeles Times, March 21, 2010]

In his first few years as the monarch of Thailand, the King traveled to 30 countries and met with world leaders such as Charles De Gaulle, Emperor Hirohito and Dwight D. Eisenhower. In 1952, he established his first development project, a breeding program for freshwater fish, the main protein source for many rural Thais. According to the Thai government: “After completing his introductory trips overseas in the 1960s, His Majesty the King has never left the country and has concentrated his time and efforts instead on the well-being of the Thai people. The King has travelled to all areas of Thailand, including the remotest parts with the most rugged terrain, talking to people to understand their ways of life and problems and find ways to help them. Despite traditional rituals and court etiquettes, the Thai King is close to his people than many leaders.

King Bhumibol's Character and Habits

The King is described as shy, earnest, intense, frugal and serious. Even though he presides over the Land of Smiles, King Bhumibol Adulyadej almost never smiles and comes across more as a serious, hard-working and concerned father. Maybe it is the weight of responsibility. He told his biographer William Stevenson, “I am not a god of gods. I am a human being, and I don’t like to be put on this pedestal.”

King Bhumibol is known as a tireless worker, "I came to power when I was 18 years old," the King said, "When I came to this function in the palace, the chairs and carpets had holes. The floors creaked. The palace was crumbling down. It was just after the war, and nobody had taken care of things. I had to reconstruct. I don't demolish."♦

In the book Khruang Ton Khon Khrua - Khrua Chitralada (“Dishes by the Chief Royal Cook - Chitralada Kitchen”), an interview given by Khunying Prasansuk Tantivejkul, the Master Chef of the Royal Household, reveals that His Majesty the King prefers simple dishes. For breakfast, he is served boiled rice with dishes such as fried salted Chinese radish with egg, salted egg, omelet, and seasoned dried shrimp, for instance. Dinner comprises dishes such as tom yam (spicy soup), or spicy fried dishes like phat phet, chu chi, phat phrik khing, and phanaeng, dips such as tamarind nam phrik, nam liap nam phrik made from preserved Chinese olive, fried shrimp paste dip ( nam phrik long rua), and of course, shrimp paste dip ( nam phrik kapi), taken with fried gourami or boiled prawns, along with fresh, fried, and preserved vegetables. So sometimes a royal meal comprises only three dishes.

King Bhumibol is a practicing Buddhist who regularly mediates. One of his mediation buddies told Time, “The treats himself as some one else, he has the Buddhist notion of non-self.” King Bhumibol once said , "Traditional doesn't mean old fashioned. Even the most modern people have tradition." His biographer William Stevenson said he is like a “Western schoolboy in Siamese clothing.”

When he was in his 60s King Bhumibol liked to get up around noon and eat lunch in the mid afternoon,. He dined late in the evening with the queen and read late into the night, often going to bed after sun rise. He is said to have few close friends and king is known to family members by his nickname “Lek,” meaning little brother.

King Bhumibol's Wife, Family and Residences

King Bhumibol became engaged to his cousin Mom Rajawong Sirikit Kitiyakara in 1949. They married a year later on April 28, 1950. After the royal wedding, King Bhumibol conferred her with the name Queen Sirkikit Kittiyakara and pledged that he would not have a harem. She was the daughter of Thailand’s ambassador to France. He met her briefly and told his mother while recuperating from eye surgery in the hospital that his greatest wish was to see her again. His mother arranged a meeting at the future king’s hospital bedside. Their romance bloomed while he was recuperating.

King Bhumibol and Queen Sirikit have four children: 1) Her Royal Highness Princess Ubol Ratana (born 1951), 2) His Royal Highness Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn (1952), 3) Her Royal Highness Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn (1955) and 4) the youngest, Her Royal Highness Princess Chulabhorn (1957). According to the Thai government: Together with the Royal Family, His Majesty King Bhumibol initiated royal activities for his country.

The King spends most of his time at the royal residence, Chitralada Palace, in Bangkok. The atmosphere is unpretentious. Visitors to the palace often complain of mosquito flying through the open doors. Construction debris from remodeled temples is used to fill potholes. There are also royal residences in Chiang Mai in the north, Sakon Nakhon in the northeast, Hua Hin on the Gulf of Thailand and Narathiwat in the south. The royals spend a lot of time at the seaside palace in Hua Hin. When he leaves his palaces the King is driven around in a yellow vintage Rolls Royce or a 1950s Cadillac.

King Bhumibol's Hobbies and Talents

Over the years King Bhumibol has enjoyed fast cars, photography, painting, yachting, doing agricultural experiments, communicating with his ham radio, and perhaps most all music. Fluent in five languages, he enjoys discussing Broadway musicals and Buddhist philosophy. He used to jog and meditate everyday. In his 60s he began spending more time studying Buddhism and philosophy. He remained an avid photographer until late in his life. Many of the royal portraits that hang in government buildings and stores show him with a camera in his hands.

Besides his musical talents and hobbies mentioned above, King Bhumibol is also a best-selling author and translator. His Majesty's national best-seller Phra Mahachanok is based on a traditional Jataka story about the Buddha scripture. Among the king’s translated works are Tito (the biography of Josip Broz Tito, former Yugoslavian President) by Phyllis Auty and Nai In Phu Pid Tong Laang Phra (“A Man called Intrepid”) by William Stevenson.

His Majesty’s favorite sport is sailing. He won a gold medal for sailing in the Fourth Southeast Asian Peninsular (SEAP) Games in 1967, together with HRH Princess Ubol Ratana whom he tied for points. This accomplishment is all the more remarkable given His Majesty’s lack of binocular depth perception. He has also sailed the Gulf of Thailand from Hua Hin to Toey Harbour in Sattahip, covering 60 nautical miles (110 km) in a 14-hour journey on the "Vega 1," an OK Class dinghy he built. The King also used to design sailboats.

King Bhumibol’s Stray Dogs

King Bhumibol wrote a best-selling book called The Story of Thong Daeng that was inspired by his favorite pet— his stray dog Khun Thong Daeng. He suggested making this book into a bilingual comic illustrated by the famous Thai comic illustrator Chai Rajawat.

King Bhumibol Adulyadej has owned several former strays and has pleaded with Thais not to harm such dogs. The book about Tongdaeng sold over a million copies. The book contains photographs of the dog taken by the king plus pictures of the dog and the King together taken by palace photographers. T-shirts and other merchandise with a portrait of the king and Tongdaeng and Tongdaeng with her own litter of nine puppies were also big sellers.

Tongdaeng was rescued from a busy street where her mother gave birth her. She was the only survivor of the litter. A royal doctor presented her to the king, who adopted her and gave her a home in the royal palace. The book about Thong Daeng was meant to be an example for people. “Tongdaeng is a respectful dog with proper manners: she is humble and knows protocol,” the king writes. “She would always sit lower than the king, even when he pulls her to embrace her. Tongdaeng would lower herself down to the floor, her ears in a respectful drooping positions.

King Bhumibol and Music

King Bhumibol plays several musical instruments including the piano, soprano saxophone, alto saxophone, tenor saxophone, baritone saxophone, clarinet, trumpet, and cornet. He plays soprano saxophone the best. He is an accomplished composer and a noted dixieland jazz clarinetist who has jammed with jazz greats like Lionel Hampton, Jack Teagarden and Stan Getz. Benny Goodman called the king a “cool cat” and said, " If ever (his Majesty) were to be jobless, I would hire as a member of my band." The king has recorded some old jazz numbers with his own hand and even composed a song for a 1950 Broadway show.

As schoolboy in Switzerland, King Bhumibol read books about music and received private lessons in reading and writing classical music. When he was ten, he began studying the clarinet which he had bought with his own money from performing chores. From the clarinet, he graduated to the saxophone and later the piano. King Bhumibol considers his favourite musical instruments to be mostly woodwind and brass instruments. At the age of 32, he was awarded honorary membership of the Vienna Institute of Music and Arts. Early in his reign he played jazz music on air on the Aw Saw radio station. His compositions can be heard at social gatherings in Thailand and are performed in concerts.

King Bhumibol's first work in 1946, entitled Saeng Tien (“Candlelight Blues”), sparked his love for composing music and to date, has written a total of 78 songs over a period of five decades. His Majesty's early compositions were mostly of the 'blues' style using the chromatic musical scale. He developed complex chords and rhythms which made possible varied arrangements for orchestral presentation. This, in turn, has made several of his songs great favorites even to the present.

His Majesty has composed 46 beautiful and eternal songs such as Love at Sundown and Near Dawn , which are loved both in Thailand and abroad.He also wrote the royal anthem Falling Rain , which accompanies photos of the royal family shown before every film shown at every cinema in Thailand.

King Bhumibol's Wealth

The family of King Bhumibol controls vast business interests in Thailand, including large valuable tracts of land in Bangkok. In 2008, Forbes magazine estimated the wealth of King Bhumibol to be $35 billion, making him the richest royal in the world and richer than Queen Elizabeth II of England or the King of Saudi Arabia. The Thai foreign ministry claimed the figure was “inaccurate and inconstant,” saying it included “land and other assets belonging to the Crown Property Bureau, which is not His Majesty’s personale net worth.”

In 2012, Forbes reported: “Thailand’s King Bhumibol is the world’s longest serving ruler. He is also the richest – by a comfortable margin. Last year Forbes estimated his net wealth in excess of $30 billion, beating oil-rich Brunei’s Sultan Bolkiah into second place. A gaggle of Gulf potentates and European royals round out our list. Bhumibol’s top ranking is controversial in Thailand, to say the least. Republicans grumble that the monarchy is wasteful and inefficient. Others are horrified that foreigners have the gall to turn a lens on their deified ruler. Royal courtiers insist that Forbes has it all wrong, that the billions on the balance sheet belong to the crown, not the man. They also contest the property valuations on which much of our estimate is based. Yes, they say, the monarchy is sitting on prime tracts of land in Bangkok and central Thailand. But it leases land and rent properties at subsidized rents that no commercial agency would tolerate. So the king isn’t loaded, just landed (and a value investor, as we’ll see). [Source: Simon Montlake, Forbes, January 20, 2012]

“A new, semi-official biography, entitled ‘King Bhumibol Adulyadej: A Life’s Work’, provides a peek into the royal money machine. A chapter in the book zeroes in on the Crown Property Bureau (CPB), which manages the crown’s property and investments. It confirms the vast land holdings that Forbes used as the basis of its estimate (drawing on a 2005 Thai academic study). In central Bangkok, the king owns 3,320 acres; town and country holdings stretch to 13,200. However, the book sticks to the CPB’s line that the combined value is less than a third of our estimate for the Bangkok land (which is much simpler to assess). “The value of the crown property is considerable, but putting an exact figure on it is difficult,” it concludes. Moreover, only 7 percent of the royal land is leased on a fully commercial basis, with annual rents equivalent to as much as 4 percent of market value. Some downtown sites are occupied by government ministries and agencies, others by slum housing, markets and shophouses. In 2010, aggregate income from property came to 2.5 billion baht ($80 million at current rates). One prime site is CentralWorld, a shopping mall that was partly torched in 2010 red-shirt riots. Another is the nearby Four Seasons hotel. In total, the CPB says it has 40,000 rental contracts, of which 17,000 are in Bangkok. [Ibid]

Much easier to measure are the crown’s corporate jewels. The CPB holds a 23 percent stake in Siam Commercial Bank, one of Thailand’s largest with a market cap of $13 billion. It also owns 32 percent of Siam Cement Group, a $12.6 billion industrial conglomerate. Add those together and you have stock worth $7 billion. In 2010, these companies paid $184 million in dividends to the bureau. In fact, according to the book’s authors, the CPB’s total revenues have averaged 9-11 billion baht a year since 2008. So even when times were hard (Thailand’s economy stalled in 2009), the crown collected a cool $290 million. The book doesn’t mention that the CPB also has a majority holding in German hotel group Kempinski AG. Another unit is Bangkok-based Deves Insurance. In 2008, this and other holdings were valued at $600 million. Even without these unlisted assets, the CPB is the largest corporate group in Thailand. [Ibid]

By comparison, Thailand’s richest entrepreneur, Dhanin Chearavanont, founder of food powerhouse CP Group, is worth $7.4 billion. Bhumibol’s fortune is much larger. That’s why Forbes ranks him as the world’s richest monarch. Yet Bhumibol’s biographers are at pains to point out that the CPB isn’t his personal piggybank (a separate agency handles the royal family’s private assets) and so it’s incorrect to label him as ultra-rich. The assets belong to the crown, not the individual. For now, the fortune is in Bhumibol’s hands. His anointed successor, Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, will inherit the keys to the safe. In other words, it’s a family enterprise in which the assets are gifted to the next generation. [Ibid]

Crown Property Bureau

The Crown Property Bureau, the investment arm of the Royal Family, hold much of the Thai Royal Family’s assets. Most of its assets are in land and shares of stocks like Siam Cement and Siam Commercial Bank. Simon Montlake wrote in Forbes: “ So what exactly is the CPB? Ah, therein lies a mystery, as the book explains. “It is not part of the palace administration, nor is it a government agency, nor is it a private firm. It is a unique institution.” Got that? Crucially, the bureau pays no business tax, and nor does Thailand have a land tax. Its tax-exempt status is enshrined in law. Yet it’s not a charity or a public agency (or a sovereign wealth fund). It’s not obliged to issue an annual report. It answers only to the king, whose investment strategy isn’t up for public debate. Actually, there’s a lot about the monarchy that isn’t up for debate in Thailand, which is why dozens of people are either in prison or awaiting trial for royal defamation. In this vacuum, Bhumibol’s personality cult has assumed titanic, often absurd, proportions. [Source: Simon Montlake, Forbes, January 20, 2012]

One justification for the CPB’s privileged status is that its annual, tax-free income defers the cost of maintaining the monarchy. “Core expenses are covered by the revenue of 9-11 billion baht from the portfolio of assets managed by the Crown Property Bureau,” the book claims. Yet taxpayers are still on the hook for their share of palace expenses. In the 2011 budget, the Bureau of the Royal Household received $84 million. Another department got $15 million. The book notes that once security costs are factored in, the government spends around $194 million a year on the royal family and its courtiers. This is in addition to the CPB’s income (minus its costs). This implies that in an average year, the Thai crown burns through half a billion dollars. [Ibid]

Compare this, if you will, to the profit and loss account of European heads of state. Spain’s constitutional monarchy costs the country $12 million a year; Britain’s much larger royal family gets nearly $50 million, but remits most of its crown property income to the treasury. Last year, it made $358 million from its holdings. British taxpayers can also find out easily where their money is spent (property upkeep, administration, overseas trips, etc). Thailand is another matter entirely, as the king’s biographers note. “The CPB has begun edging towards greater transparency but there remains some way to travel.” [Ibid]

King Bhumibol and Important Celebrations

King Bhumibol’s birthday on December 5th is a big event in Thailand. It is regarded as Thailand’s National Day. It and the Queen’s Birthday on August 12 are national holidays. For his 80th birthday in 2007 thousands of people wore yellow shirts and the packed the streets around the Grand Palace in Bangkok , where the king made a brief appearance. Some Thais traveled long distances to catch a glimpse of the king.

Important royal occasions are marked with royal barge processions on the Chao Phraya River. A major one was held on the king's 72nd birthday in 1999. Thai life is calculate in 12-year-cycles. The later birthdays are particularly big occasions. His 84th birthday was also a big occasion. Around 200,000 Thais came out to witness a rare public appearance in the historic district of Bangkok. The king called for unity in his speech. Many of those in the crowd wore Yellow Shirts, symbols of loyalty to the king but also signifying their opposition to the Thaksin government in power at the time.

The golden jubilee in 1996 honoring the king's 50th year on throne was celebrated with a year-long string of festivals, national holidays and sporting events. On June 6, the golden royal barges were brought out to sail down the Chao Phraya river. On the King’s birthday on December 5, a reforestation program whose aim was to plant two million acres of trees.

Fete Celebrating King Bhumibol’s 60th Year on the Throne

To mark his 60th year in the throne in 2006, the longest of any reigning monarch, King Bhumibol donned a golden crown and gave a speech from the balcony of the palace. A large crowd wearing royal yellow gathered outside Dusit Palace. One observer said, “I feel like I am getting to meet our father.” Representatives from the royal houses of 25 of the 28 countries that still had monarchies at the time showed up, including the Emperor and Empress of Japan, Britain’s Prince Andrew and Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands. ThIt was only his third such appearance. He spoke for about five minutes and called for unity during a political raised a coup months before a coup. A five day holiday marked the occasion.

Describing the opening of the event Grant Peck of Associated Press wrote: “Kneeling maidens in silk gowns scattered flower petals across a red carpet Sunday to welcome members of the world's royal families for celebrations honoring 60 years on the throne for Thailand's king. Attendants in white tunics and traditional dark pantaloons held purple parasols to shield the arriving royals from the bright sun. The day's first arrival, Prince Henrik of Denmark, the consort of Queen Margrethe II, was welcomed at Bangkok International Airport by a smiling Princess Sirindhorn, King Bhumibol Adulyadej's 51-year-old daughter. She later greeted Grand Duke Henri, Luxembourg's head of state. Her brother, Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, 53 — Thailand's heir apparent — welcomed King Mswati of Swaziland, Cambodia's King Norodom Sihamoni, Japan's Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko, and Brunei's Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah. [Source: Grant Peck, Associated Press, June 11, 2006]

The visitors were presented with scented garlands of jasmine flowers and walked from their planes along a formal reception line as their royal hosts led them to limousines which took them into Bangkok on roads closed to normal traffic. Representatives of reigning royals from 15 countries in Africa, Asia, Europe and the Middle East were to arrive Sunday to mark the 60th anniversary of the accession to the throne of King Bhumibol, the world's longest-reigning monarch. Britain's Prince Andrew, Bahrain's Prime Minister Shaikh Khalifa bin Salman al Khalifa and Morocco's Princess Lalla Salma — the wife of King Mohammed VI — arrived earlier.

The next day “an estimated 700,000 Thais thronged the streets around Bangkok's Royal Plaza to hear the king deliver a rare public address in which he made a call for national unity. Thai officials have made elaborate preparations to ensure that the royal celebrations proceed smoothly, including plucking unsightly stray dogs from the streets of the capital, and closing off highways and major streets for much of the next few days to facilitate the VIP visitors' transport. Bangkok residents are expecting major traffic jams.

After a ceremonial visit with the king in the Throne Hall at his palace in Bangkok, the royals joined the king on Monday at the Royal Navy Yard along the Chao Phraya river for a procession of regal barges. More than 2,000 oarsmen will row 52 ornate boats down the river in a procession 1,200 meters long and 90 meters wide, in one of the most widely anticipated events of the five-day celebration. Thai navy oarsmen, wearing traditional costumes, chanted in unison to time their strokes. The event ended with a royal banquet.

King Bhumibol and His Subjects

King Bhumibol is widely loved by practically all Thais, who generally have nothing but good things to say about him. One street vendor told Time, Thailand wouldn’t be worth living in if we didn’t have him.” A flower seller told Time, “He has a white heart, there is magic, goodness and power in his heart. Athletes that have won Olympic medals have celebrated by hoisting the king’s portrait.

King Bhumibol’s compassion for Thais has been described as “Mother Teresa-like.” He has visited almost every town and village in Thailand, traveling by helicopter, jeep, train, boat and on foot. In the 1970s and 1980s he even went to trouble spots where Communist insurgents were active, a nightmare for his bodyguards. He has also visited the Muslim south when there was a problem with insurgents there. Once he continued with his speech after dozens of people were injured by two explosions that went off in the crowd listening to him.

King Bhumibol was known for taking copious notes and often stayed up half the night sorting through the note he made on a given day. When he talks with ordinary people he asks them to refrain from using the polite royal language. On his travels around Thailand he often hung around and listened to the problems of his subjects long after his aides were ready to go back and brought along a medical team that took care of complaints and problems voiced by villagers at the expense of the royal family. Thai compare his unquestioned authority to “the comforting shade of a big tree.”

In 2007 Thais all over the country could be seen wearing pink clothes after King Bhumibol checked out of the hospital in November wearing a pale pink collarless shirt and pink blazer. The trend began when an astrologer designated pink as an auspicious color for the king’s 80th birthday. Pink was included in a royal emblem designed for the birthday and the Thai Commerce Ministry ordered the production of thousands of pink shirts to meet demand.

Describing a crowd waiting for an appearance of the king, Alan Sipress wrote in the Washington Post: “His subjects began crowding the roadside more than an hour before the motorcade of the king of Thailand was scheduled to pass before the white, crenelated walls of the Grand Palace. They claimed patches of shade across from gleaming fairy-tale spires, spreading newspapers on the sidewalks to sit and wait for a glimpse of the world's longest-reigning monarch. As the procession approached, the steamy morning clamor of downtown Bangkok melted into hushed silence. The crowd rose to its feet. The loyal and the curious pressed palms together in a gesture of greeting and respect, heads lowered but eyes uplifted in hopes of spying the king's dispassionate, almost somber, visage through the window of his cream-colored Rolls-Royce. "I'm afraid one day I won't be able to see the king anymore," whispered a tall, 50-year-old woman with long hair who turned out in the tropical heat to watch the motorcade. She said she tried to attend every one of his public appearances. [Source: Alan Sipress, Washington Post, May 28, 2006]

King's Health Problems

King Bhumibol turned 85 in December 2012. The event was marked solemnly with prayers for his health. When he was in his mid 50s the king was still jogging and doing push-ups every day. Many of his subjects, though, felt that he should take more vacations. Some speculated he had an ulcer. In 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013 the King spent much of his time in the hospital and has effectively been hospitalised since 2009. In 2011 he was suffering a fever and pain in his lower abdomen. In July 2013, the king ended a nearly four-year hospital stay — initially for treatment of a lung infection — to live in the seaside palace Hua Hin south of Bangkok.

U.S. diplomatic cables written in 2009 and leaked in 2011 reported King Bhumibol suffered from Parkinson’s disease and depression. The cable written by U.S. Ambassador Eric King said the King was “beset by long-term Parkinson’s, depression and chronic low back pain.” Thai Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsubanis was quoted as saying there were worries about the king’s mental health. [Source: Kenneth Denby, Times of London, June 2011]

The King's health is front page news in Thailand. He was hospitalized twice in 1995: to receive treatment for a clogged artery and to have surgery on his heart. In 1997, he was treated for an irregular heartbeat. A red wine boom began in Thailand after the royal doctors told the King he should drink a couple of glasses of red wine each day for his heart trouble. He has also suffered from chronic back problems and hemorrhoids.

During the political upheaval that followed Asian economic crisis in 1997-98, the king was hospitalized. One of his doctors said, "His Majesty the King has fallen ill due to his concern over the current political situation. I beg politicians to stop their infighting and work for the king and country's benefit." In November 1997, the stock market crashed on reports that the king had an irregular heartbeat.

In February 2002, King Bhumibol underwent prostate surgery. He had an enlarged prostrate, common for men of his age, that caused frequent urination. The enlargement was benign. In August 2006, the 78-year-old king underwent surgery on his spine after a fall. Doctors said he was being treated for a condition known as lumbar spinal stenosis, which results from aging and causes narrowing of the spinal canal, compressing the spinal cord and nerves and causing pain and weakness in the legs.

In October 2007, King Bhumibol was hospitalized for more than three weeks with symptoms of a minor stroke. He received hospital treatment for weakness on the right side of his body and a colon infection. A message from the Royal Household Bureau said, “The king has now recovered, his blood pressure is normal, his colon has recovered and there is no longer a shortage of blood flow to the brain. He was treated in the hospital for three weeks.”

In 2008, King Bhumibol was unable to make his traditional birthdy speech due to what ws described as an inflammation to his esophagus. Crown Princess Sirindhorn said, “Yesterday when I saw him he looked OK. He could eat what we served him, but today he had a throat infection so he could barely eat.”

King Bhumibol in 2009, 2010 and 2011

Bhumibol has almost disappeared from public life since he was hospitalized in September 2009 for what the palace called a lung inflammation. Since then he has had a variety of ailments and has lived in a royal wing of Bangkok's Siriraj Hospital, leaving only on rare occasions and always in a wheelchair. [Source: Thanyarat Doksone, | Associated Press, May 25, 2012]

In September 2009, King Bhumibol was admitted to the hospital with a low fever and inflammation of the lungs and stayed there for more than a year. His condition was worrisome enough that there was large sell off on Thailand’s financial markets by foreign investors. After his initial recovery in November 2009 the palace pronounced his health stable and the king made a brief public appearance in a motorized wheelchair. At that point the reason given for his lengthy stay in the hospital was physical therapy needed to improve his strength so he could walk normally. Not long afterwards he returned to the hospital. The king finally left the hospital in November 2010 to mark his 83rd birthday. There no explanation why he stayed in the hospital so long.

In May 2011, King Bhumibol underwent surgery to drain excessive spinal fluid out of concern that some might have entered his brain. The surgery, doctor’s said, was done to improve the king’s walking ability. In November 2011, the King suffered from internal bleeding that some said was caused by stress related to Thailand’s flood crisis which was occurring at the time. Shortly before that he went into shock and fell unconscious. News of the king’s condition was often transmitted by his daughters Princess Sirindhorn and Princess Chulabhorn.

In December 2011, King Bhumibol made a speech on his 84 birthday, calling for Thais to unite in response to the worst floods in Thailand in more than half a century. He spoke for about five minutes from a terrace of the Grand Palace, having been driven there from the hospital where he had been staying for more than two years. In the speech he told Thais it was their duty “to cooperate and fix problems to the best of their ability, especially now that people are suffering from the floods.” Well-wishers waved flags and chanted “Long live the king.” The speech was broadcast live on all television channels and radio stations in Thailand.

King Bhumibol in 2012

In May, 2012, King Bhumibol took a trip outside of Bangkok. AP reported: “Thousands upon thousands of devoted Thais feted their 84-year-old monarch on his first trip outside the capital in almost three years, a period marked by his ailing health and national political turmoil. The elaborate tribute to King Bhumibol Adulyadej in the old capital of Ayutthaya was a celebration of values and unity overshadowed in recent years by the turmoil. The highlight of the Ayutthaya was a rice paddy that the king also toured in 1996 and was part of a royal project to mitigate flooding in Ayutthaya. The devastating floods in 2011 submerged much of Ayutthaya, damaging ancient temples, crops and hundreds of factories. [Source: Thanyarat Doksone, | Associated Press, May 25, 2012]

The king's first stop was at a statue of Queen Suriyothai, a consort of an Ayutthaya-era king who sacrificed her life in battle with the Burmese to save her husband. Bhumibol handed over a garland from his van for an official to place before the statue. The king left his van at the next stop, a specially constructed royal hall, where Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra paid her respects with a short speech declaring her devotion. A parade staged for the king recalled a much earlier era, with people in period costumes marching along with nine elephants decked in glittering regalia. The show at one point included two warriors on elephant-back staging a mock battle, as well as performances of traditional music and dance, performed in the dramatic dusk light. Dressed in a military uniform, Bhumibol earlier was wheeled from the hospital and into a white van adapted to accommodate his wheelchair.

He, Queen Sirikit and one of their daughters, Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, were driven past crowds of people waving Thai flags and the yellow royal flag as police outriders stopped traffic to let the king pass. People dressed in yellow and pink — colors associated with the monarch — lined the roads from Bangkok to the country's central plains hours before the royal convoy was due to pass. The palace has given little explanation for the trip, though farming is closely integrated into national tradition and the king closely associated with it. It likely serves as a chance to publicize the king's improved health — a matter of such public interest that a Bangkok newspaper carried a front-page headline that stated: "His Majesty The King Takes 50 Steps Without His Cane." As far as could be seen, he used a wheelchair.

In December 2012,King Bhumibol made a rare speech on his 85 birthday, calling for unity in Thailand. A crowd of 200,000 came out to wish him well.

King Appeals for Calm During His 86th Birthday Speech in 2013

Amid violent demonstration in December 2013, King Bhumibol used his annual birthday speech to call for stability but made no direct reference to the crisis. Grant Peck of Associated Press wrote: “Violence and street battles between anti-government protesters and police were put on hold as both sides observed a truce to mark the birthday of King Bhumibol Adulyadej. Crowds dressed in the royal color of yellow lined the roads in the seaside town of Hua Hin to catch a glimpse of the world's longest reigning monarch. They shouted "Long live the king!" as his motorcade drove slowly to Klai Kangwon Palace, which literally means "Far From Worries." Onlookers wept as the king spoke, taking great effort and pausing for long stretches during his brief 5-minute speech. He thanked the people for coming together "in good will" to wish him well. [Source: Grant Peck, Associated Press, December 5, 2013 <^>]

"Our country has long experienced happiness because we have been united in performing our duties and working together for the good of the whole country," the king said. He wore a ceremonial golden robe and sat on a throne before an audience that included Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and her Cabinet ministers, Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn and his three sisters, and the leaders of the armed forces. "All Thais should consider this very much and focus on doing their duties ... which are the security and stability of the country," he said. Many people were hopeful the king would step in — as he has done in the past — to ease the current standoff, which results from years of enmity between supporters and opponents of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. However, the king is a less vigorous figure than he used to be. His infrequent public appearances are poignant, since he is visibly infirm with age and uses a wheelchair. <^>

“After the speech, it was clear that the king's words had done little to heal the country's bitter divide. At Democracy Monument in Bangkok, one of the main anti-government rally sites, hundreds of people gathered to show respect for the king, but when images of Yingluck appeared on giant screens the crowd booed and many shouted obscenities. At the protest headquarters, the movement's leader, Suthep Thaugsuban, said the truce would end. "Today is a day that Thai people nationwide believe is an auspicious day," Suthep said after watching the king's speech. "Tomorrow the people's movement will continue to eradicate the Thaksin regime from Thailand." <^>

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Tourist Authority of Thailand, Thailand Foreign Office, The Government Public Relations Department, CIA World Factbook, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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