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Things all Thais know, but you may not know about King Bhumibol Adulyadej

Pattharapong Rattanasevee
Pattharapong Rattanasevee

Lecturer at Burapha University in Chonburi, Thailand

Bangsaen  /  Thu, November 3, 2016  /  01:50 pm
Things all Thais know, but you may not know about King Bhumibol Adulyadej

Thais hold portraits of Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej at Siriraj Hospital where the king is being treated in Bangkok, Thailand, Oct. 11, 2016. (AP/Sakchai Lalit)

The evening of Oct. 13 was a crucial moment for Thailand as it was the time when the Bureau of the Royal Household officially announced the death of King Bhumibol, ending his 70 years on the throne and at the same time the world's longest-serving monarch. 

The whole nation was stunningly covered with silence, grief and uncertainty. It was also a very emotional, long and difficult night for many Thais. 

King Bhumibol is highly beloved and revered in Thailand and regarded as the heart of the nation, perhaps far more than any other head of state. Consequently, several world leaders issued statements to pay tribute to King Bhumibol, including President Barack Obama, President Vladimir Putin, President Xi Jinping and UN chief Ban Ki-moon. A UN  special session was held on Oct. 28 to honor the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej. 

As addressed on TV, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha stated that there would be a one-year mourning period for government officials and the toning down all entertainment functions for a month. Thai people are currently in black honoring and commemorating his lifetime commitment to the country. 

(Read also: Thailand issues tourist guidelines for mourning period)

Recently, international headlines have been flooded with rumors and expectations regarding his successor, his controversial role in politics and the future of the country. From international perspectives, instead of discussing such matters, only a few understand the public mood and know the real situation in Thailand. In this crucial transition, it is intriguing to understand why this king is special, so much revered by his subjects and respected both domestically and internationally, as well as why Thai monarchy is highly unique and far different from any other monarchic system.        

First, many have said that King Bhumibol is widely regarded as semi-divine. This may be only a half-truth. Half of his semi-divinity come from traditional beliefs and the state of long reigning monarchy. The other half comes from his character and habits, morality, personal lifestyle and intelligence. 

King Bhumibol is known as a tireless worker, kind, caring, charitable, earnest, sharp, serious and determined. He has a very simple and down-to-earth lifestyle. There have been a lot of word-of-mouth stories sharing among people about his modest and exemplary personal life, such as the stories of his flattened left toothpaste, his favorite watch, his used pencils and his repeatedly repaired shoes. His working space in the palace was only a 3-by-4-meter room filled with radios, televisions, computers, maps and other telecommunication devices. 

Aside from his kingly duties, His majesty is also a professional painter, a professional photographer, a Jazz musician, a composer, an engineer, an architect, a book author and translator, an inventor and a visionary thinker. Moreover, he is proficient in seven foreign languages and once represented Thailand in the 1967 Southeast Asian Peninsular Games; winning the gold medal in yachting with using his self-invented sailboat. 

His majesty received over 200 honorary doctorates, both from domestic and foreign universities, as well as numerous prestigious international awards including the world's first UN’s Human Development Lifetime Achievement Award in 2006 presented by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. And now, his philosophy of Sufficient Economy, the idea that encourages people to reach a state of self-sufficiency and focuses on balanced development between environmental and social responsibilities as much as conventional measures of economic progress, is now going global.      

Second is about his work and lifetime commitment to the country. His majesty initiated and developed over 4,000 development projects, both in rural and urban areas, including building of some important infrastructure such as Pa Sak Jolasid Dam, Ratchadaphisek Road, Boromraj Chonnanee Elevated Road, Rama VIII Bridge and Bangkok Industrial Ring Road, with several of them are thought to be funded by his own money. Several of agricultural, forestry and small-scale industrial projects were started as self-conducted experiments in the gardens of the Dusit Palace, his majesty's personal residence in Bangkok. Then, they will be implemented and made available to people once deemed successful. 

He also holds several international patents, most notably the royal rainmaking technology, the Chai Pattana waste water aerator and the bio-fuel from palm oil. In fact, he works in parallel and in collaboration with the government, but his efforts often appear to be quick, effective, answering, well-planed and corruption-free in contrast to the apparent uncaring attitude and ineffective performance of government officials, making him to be ‘the most trusted and reliable person’ in the eyes of citizens.

Third, it is perhaps because of his long reign and his decisive role in politics, crisis and society. As a consequence of deep respect and reverence as well as his contributions growing in number and scale, King Bhumibol acquires a special status as a final mediator. Uniquely, his intervention and influence on politics are judiciously and only sparingly, but when coming out it is powerful and undeniable. The most recognized one would be during the deadly unrest in 1992, when he mediated by summoning the two opposition leaders to find a peaceful solution and to end bloodshed. This momentous incident was televised nationwide and led to a general election that resulted in the formation of a civilian government. He also did a similar thing in 1973 and 1976.

(Read also: Thais buy commemorative currency note honoring late king)

In explanation, as Nigel Gould-Davies put it in The Washington Post, his sources of legitimacy derived from tradition, divinity, devotion and charisma “together created a role with enormous moral authority far beyond its formal constitutional powers”. Currently, this can be evidenced by the unusual southern insurgency situation, where separatists had committed almost day-to-day violence, but has completely halted since the death of King Bhumibol. Similarly, the commissioner of Metropolitan Police Bureau also revealed that Metro Bangkok had its first ever “zero crime” during the first week after the death. These supernatural phenomena are difficult to understand from western perspectives, but it was simply expressed and proclaimed in Thai as ‘Ba-ra-mee’ which means supernatural moral power.   

What we have learnt from King Bhumibol’s 70-year reign is that, by working tirelessly, devoting the whole lifetime to society and leading a modest and exemplary personal life, the country has achieved an alternative form of authority that was built almost entirely around one man. His supreme soft power could prevail over hard ones and has helped the country maintain stability and, from time to time, cruise through domestic and regional turmoil. Though this was only temporary and not sustainable, but it was a viable one that can wield real political power. 

This unique personal force does not conform to general Western ways of thought and, without deeply studying the social and historical context, it would be impossible to understand. It is rarely seen in world history and also unlikely to be seen in the near future. 

Indeed, the death of His majesty is the greatest loss in centuries for Thais leaving emptiness and uncertain future for the nation. From now on, the only question to be asked is will Thailand find a decisive solution when such sheer force is no longer available.



The writer is a lecturer at the Faculty of Political Science, Burapha University specializing in international politics, regionalism, and Southeast Asian studies. He obtained a doctorate degree in International Relations from University of Bath and a Master’s degree in public policy from Brunel University, London.

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