Thailand’s King Bhumibol is treated almost as a divine being by the Thai people, and as totally divine by many thousands of his subjects. For this reason, his is the only voice the people will listen to at times of instability, o,r as at present, of political tension. As usual, both sides to the conflict profess their loyalty very loudly.
The Thais of all classes prostrate themselves on the ground in the king’s presence, yet there is genuine love and affection for him too, and he is regarded as a much beloved head of the family, like a loving grandfather or father to whom honour and loyalty is owed.
King Bhumipol and his People
Part of this love for the king comes from his interaction with his people over the years. Travelling upcountry, often under difficult circumstances, the king and his family could often be found squatting in rice fields talking to the peasants, or mingling with workers in the hill country where he initiated projects to wean them off growing the opium poppy. He obviously enjoys his time with his people: it is then he smiles.
Respect for the Monarchy and Lese Majeste
Visitors to the country are warned of the need to be respectful of the king and the royal family. Any criticism at all of the monarchy will bring down the full force of the lese majeste law as has happened in a few cases this year where jail sentences were handed down to some who ignored the la
Bangkok as Modern Metropolis
There have been many political upheavals during his time on the throne as Thailand moved from being an agrarian society to being a modern country with all that that entails. The capital, Bangkok, has gone from being a mosquito infested city in the seventies, lying on the banks of a river surrounded by rice paddies with buffaloes and elephants doing the work, to a modern, metropolis with grid-locked traffic, skyscrapers and shopping malls in abundance, with never a buffalo or elephant in sight. The per capita income has increased some 50-fold and they are even now coping with the west’s disease of obesity.
To Date, 17 Coups in Thailand
During King Bhumibol’s reign there have been 17 military coups and a decline in traditional community and family values. In the main tourist areas, visitors who display habits that are abhorrent to the Thais are tolerated, and not just because Buddhism dictates tolerance, but because the once clear cut rules of life are eroded.
It is this change in lifestyle, the movement from rural to urban life, and the need to embrace another way of life as globalization creeps across the world, that frightens the mass of the people, adding to the king’s moral authority and encouraging his subjects to see him as an anchor. In a world of corruption and stark divisions between rich and poor, he signifies not just history but a Buddhist detachment from the ugly realities of politics and money grubbing.
Will the King Speak Out?
It is presumed, or hoped, that the king will once again intervene to help settle the current upheaval in the country. When he speaks, people listen, even the warring, fractious politicians will listen. But this time the outcome is not so clear-cut. Things are changing fast, and even Thailand may be knocked sideways by the winds of change that are sweeping across the world.