International Herald Tribune
Anniversary of a modern monarch
HONG KONG The 60th anniversary on Friday of the accession of King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand is an occasion for celebration and of congratulations to this remarkable monarch. But it should perhaps also be a time for reflecting on the role of the monarchy during his reign and the issues that will confront his successor and the nation.

There is scant open discussion either inside or outside Thailand of these issues, as a result of lèse- majesté laws as well as reverence, derived from Buddhist and Hindu traditions, for the just monarch.

Most writing about him has been hagiographic. But the laws are more often used by politicians for their own ends than by the palace to protect the king. Indeed he himself appeared to condone more open discussion last year when he admonished Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra for invoking lèse- majesté, saying that criticism was beneficial and even the king should not be exempt.

Officially the monarch is above politics. He is the wise arbiter who from time to time is required to save the nation from disorder caused by quarreling and corrupt politicians and generals. But such an idealistic vision corresponds inexactly with the rough and tumble realities of Thailand during profound social and economic change. King Bhumibol's goal of restoring the prestige and power of the monarch as an enlightened and benevolent leader has required many interventions, mostly in support of conservative forces.

In some ways, King Bhumibol has been almost too successful in rebuilding the monarchy's status from its nadir in the 1940s. His skills, his self-evident dedication and the length of his reign have combined to give him an authority far greater than that of the monarchs of Japan or Europe. But the succession itself is not entirely clear, let alone the future relationship of the monarch to a modern, newly democratic and thoroughly capitalist state.

When King Bhumibol came to the throne there were doubts as to whether the monarchy would survive at all. The Thai monarchy had been stripped of its power by the 1932 democratic revolution and further weakened by a long period of regency. It was marginalized by left-leaning democrats under Pridi Phanomyong, and by Pibul Songgram, the nationalist general who was in power for many of the years between 1935 and 1957.

But after Pibul returned to Thailand from overseas in 1951, even he had to give ground to the young, popular, hard-working monarch and his glamorous, charming wife. Monarchists rallied around King Bhumibol. In 1957, Pibul was ousted in a coup by another general, Sarit Thanarat.

Under Sarit and his successor from 1963, Thanom Kittikachorn, the royal image and prerogatives flourished as the king's reputation for good works grew and grew, helping counteract the spread of Communism. He also played a role in cementing the U.S. alliance during the Vietnam War.

The king's attitude toward democracy, however, was ambiguous at best. The palace gave its blessing to the 1976 coup, which replaced the democratic government that had emerged after the 1973 revolution. The coup was preceded by a massacre of students by the police and right-wing vigilantes.

Again in 1991, the palace appeared to sanction a coup by Suchinda Kraprayoon against the corrupt but elected government of Chatichai Choonhavan, which led to bloodshed the following year before democracy was restored. Palace criticisms of Thaksin have been seen partly as a reaction to his desire for prestige and publicity to an extent that seemed to herald an authoritarian populism that could overshadow the monarchy.

But whatever the roles of fervent royalists, the king has usually given the impression of being distanced from individual generals and politicians, and was skillful enough not to find himself evidently at odds with popular aspirations. His aura of wisdom, tolerance, concern for the poor, humility and justice was always a ready contrast to the venal politicians.

For Thailand's people, the king's own evident dedication has been a beacon of light among sleaze. Indeed, it is likely that without his influence Thailand's development would have been much more troubled than has been the case.

Yet it is doubtful that an increasingly complex, modern, urban society can rely too heavily for long on one man's wisdom and an ancient philosophy of kingship rather than the development of institutions based on laws and procedures. At 78, King Bhumibol's great achievements are shadowed by the very real concern about the future, when he is gone.

The monarchy will survive, of course. But are Thai institutions ready for an era when the occupant of the throne may lack his moral authority? And is the monarchy ready to see its own role shrunk to that of Japan, or to what it was when King Bhumibol ascended the throne in 1946?