A mighty crowd, dressed in royal yellow, filled the centre of Bangkok last June to celebrate the Thai King’s 60th year in power. For many in Thailand King Bhumibol Adulayadej is godlike, and he commands immense respect. His 60-year reign is the world’s longest, and now, aged 79, he shows no signs of stepping down.
He is revered for his role as father of the nation. “I want people all over the country to bless him. I want him to live, and to protect us, for as long as possible”, said one loyal subject. The King’s soft-spoken style, yet energetic workrate, has carried him well through the decades, earning his people’s devotion despite the fact that his court uses a language that the people do not understand.
He is seen as the ultimate political arbiter, and the defender of the weak against the elites. In fact Bhumibol was born in the USA, only accepting an invitation to take up Thailand’s throne in 1947, aged 18, on the condition that he was allowed to finish his law studies in Switzerland.
Bhumibol was crowned in 1950. Thailand has been a constitutional monarchy since 1932, and is one of the few countries in the world never to be occupied by a foreign power. It walked a tightrope during the cold war, but avoided being sucked into the Vietnam quagmire, despite American bases in the country. Bhumibol took the title Rama the ninth, and modified the constitution several times, making it more democratic.
Although supposed to stay out of politics, he is not afraid to intervene, and has done so several times, skilfully avoiding association with any particular political current. Thailand’s turbulent history entered an era of relative prosperity, but the threat of a military coup has never been far away.
Last September the army toppled a government that was little-liked by the King. Soldiers wore yellow bands while sitting on their tanks, but the king denied they were acting on his orders. After hesitating for a while King Bhumibol endorsed the army’s actions, saying it was in the national interest, and accepted the army’s nomination for Prime Minister Surayad Chulanont. Fresh elections will be held at the end of this year.