Thursday,23 November, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1316, (20 - 26 October 2016)
Thursday,23 November, 2017
Issue 1316, (20 - 26 October 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Monarchy and national unity

The passing of Thai king Bhumibol Adulyadej earlier this week is reason to reflect on the meaning of monarchies worldwide, writes Gamal Nkrumah

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Al-Ahram Weekly

“In Thailand’s history there have been dissensions from time to time, but in general unity has prevailed” the late Thai king Bhumibol Adulyadej once mused. He was seen as honest by the majority of his people and the Thai public highly esteemed him.

Monarchy was the most common form of government throughout the world until the 19th century, but it is no longer prevalent. The monarchs of several Asian nations such as Cambodia, Japan and Malaysia “reign, but do not rule”. Those of Thailand, too, do not rule. Yet, they are venerated as the scenes of mourning for the late Thai king demonstrated.

These monarchs are considered the “soul” of their nations, the very embodiments of their people’s heritage. For most of his reign Bhumibol Adulyadej had to contend with military rulers, but he managed to assuage the generals that ruled Thailand for much of his reign as they still do today.

He was the world’s longest-serving head of state, crowned king of Thailand on 5 May 1950 in Bangkok, the Thai capital. During his reign, he was served by a total of 30 prime ministers. He kept above the compromises of everyday politics, on the whole allowing the generals to rule, though this required them to realise that healthy politics is not gang warfare.

Politics involves compromise, because to yield in some areas means moving forward in others. King Bhumibol Adulyadej knew that the person of the monarch makes the idea of the head of state as the father of the nation more appealing to the masses and less alarming. But it creates ambiguity about why the king is venerated.

A long-lasting relationship between a monarch and the military is a strange love affair. And throughout contemporary Thai history one gets glimpses of something better.

King Bhumibol Adulyadej was the youngest son of prince Mahidol Chulalongkorn and the seventh of queen Savang Vadhana, a much-venerated guardian figure. His pedigree as a prince of yesteryear meant much to his compatriots.

His esteemed great grandfather and the founder of the dynasty of which he was a member was Rama I (1737-1809), known to the Siamese of his time as Phra Phuttha Chao Luangwa, the 69th child of the prince of Songkla.

Rama I’s name changed several times during his lifetime, and he was distinguished for fighting the Burmese. When he ascended to the throne of what was then Siam in 1782, he took the name Ramathibodi, thus stressing the Hindu, or Indian, roots of Indo-China or Southeast Asia.

The country’s monarchy is based on concepts derived from Hinduism and the Theravada branch of Buddhism. The meaning of Thai kingship has evolved through 800 years of absolute rule.

King Bhumibol Adulyadej grew up under the guidance of his grandmother, the 27th daughter of king Rama IV. When his childless uncle Prajadhipok abdicated in 1935, his nine-year-old brother Ananda became the new king Rama VIII.

King Rama VII (Prajadhipok) charted a new and brighter future for Thailand and Southeast Asia as a whole. His nephew, later king Bhumibol Adulyadej, made a modern nation out of what was once a feudal kingdom.

His father chose the name Bhumibol Adulyadej for him, meaning “strength of the land, incomparable power.” Bhumibol was born in the United States and first arrived in Thailand in 1928 after his father obtained a degree from Harvard University. His father died of kidney failure in September 1929 when Bhumibol was less than two years old, and Bhumibol ascended the throne following the death by gunshot wound of his brother on 9 June 1946.

From there, his reign was marked by learning to assimilate to global culture, without losing Thailand’s national identity. 

King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s son, Crown-Prince Vajiralongkorn, declared this week that he would not be crowned king until a year of mourning had passed. This is a long-standing Thai tradition. The real question now is whether he will follow in his late father’s footsteps.

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