BANGKOK — For Thailand’s royalists — and there are millions of them — King Bhumibol Adulyadej will probably long remain embedded as a potent, father-like figure who guided them through turbulent decades and espoused ideals of national harmony, labor on behalf of the poor and the virtues of an agrarian society vanishing in the wake of headlong modernization.
But how such affection and the king’s ideals will impact the country’s turbulent political arena and day-to-day life remains to be seen. That depends on how successfully Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn ultimately fills his father’s shoes, how the ruling military regime shapes the vacuum left by the politically powerful king and whether Thais translate some of Bhumibol’s admonitions — like not succumbing to rampant greed, corruption and environmental exploitation — into practice.
“We will hear people in power asserting that they will continue his legacy by following his examples. Will this be just more lip service?” wrote a columnist in the Bangkok Post.
Other comments in local newspapers note that despite the surface calm imposed by the junta, deep divisions still permeate society following more than a decade of mass protests, bloodshed and coups. The king resolved several political crises over his reign, but over the last several years illnesses had removed him from center stage.
Conservative, largely urban elites who champion the monarchy and at times favor military intervention in politics — labeled “yellow shirts” — have long been pitted against “red shirts” from rural regions and among the intelligentsia who decry inequality and a lack of popular participation in political decision making. While many in the red faction held great respect for Bhumibol himself, they view the institution of the monarchy as having held back Thailand’s progress toward democracy, with some favoring largely ceremonial royals along European lines.
These rifts escalated in 2006 when the military ousted populist Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, and exploded four years later when pro-Thaksin red shirts took over central Bangkok, only to be bloodily suppressed by the military in clashes that killed nearly 100 people. Generals led by current Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha staged a second coup in 2014 against a government headed by Thaksin’s sister and present themselves as defenders of the monarchy against those who allegedly seek its demise.
“A military government that bases its support on defense of the monarch in Bangkok will become deeply problematic,” said Charles F. Keyes, an emeritus professor at the University of Washington who has followed developments in Thailand for more than half a century. “But the return of democracy will come from increasing pressure from the populace who no longer can be cowed by invoking the support of the monarchy.”
Whatever happens next, the country’s 800-year-old institution is likely to change. The prince, who has not yet become king, has not been held in the same regard as his beloved father.
“After seven decades under one king, who became known as the father of the country, there is nobody to fill those shoes,” said Paul Handley, author of a critical biography of Bhumibol, “The King Never Smiles.”
The king once described himself as “unique” among the world’s 26 remaining monarchs.
He was not an absolute ruler like some still holding power in the Middle East and elsewhere, yet as a constitutional monarch he far exceeded the power and influence of such similarly defined royals as Great Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II.
Through his personality, political acumen and good works, Bhumibol created a new role for himself and energized an institution which had been waning since the abolition of absolute monarchy in 1932. He called himself a “self-made man.”
Much of this clout and the reverence in which he is held by Thais stems from his years working in the countryside on behalf of the poor. The palace initiated more than 4,300 development projects, and while some have floundered, others still reap benefits. Hilltribe families in northern Thailand will to this day say how the coffee plants or pigs they acquired from the royal projects years ago continue to better their lives.
The king’s rural bias spawned a philosophy of “sufficiency economy” — living modestly and sustainably, conserving natural resources and shielding the country from negative economic forces from abroad. While this has been given lip service by Thai officials as well as some foreign critics of globalization, it matches up with neither Thailand’s highly capitalist economy nor its poor environmental record.
Born in the U.S. and Swiss-educated, the king maintained healthy relations with the West. Though he hadn’t traveled abroad in nearly 50 years, the king and his wife, Queen Sirikit, made many foreign trips in the 1950s and ’60s that helped put Thailand, then a little-known country, on the world map. Ties with the U.S. were particularly close during that time, and he maintained warm ties with Europe’s royal families.
Thai-U.S. relations have cooled somewhat since the 2014 coup, while the junta government’s ties with China have appeared to strengthen.
In Thailand, the king’s legacy will certainly be protected from any criticism. The country has the world’s toughest law against insulting the monarchy, a crime punishable by up to 15 years in prison.
Abroad, appraisals of his reign have appeared in recent years, some arguing that by siding with conservative forces, including the military, he did little to promote a democratic future for his country.
“King Bhumibol will be remembered for his dedication as a working monarch, getting his shoes and pants muddy in the fields to visit farmers, putting his efforts into finding ways to elevate the livelihoods of the kingdom’s poorest,” Handley said. “Other things that could mar his image — problems with his family, his lifetime alliance with the military — won’t be remembered.
“Thai people will remember him as a father figure who embodied the ideals they have about their own culture: humility, modest, fun-loving, earnestness, selflessness.”
Denis D. Gray has covered Thailand and Southeast Asia for The Associated Press for more than 40 years.