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  Bhumibol Adulyadej, ‘the King who never smiled’

Bhumibol Adulyadej, ‘the King who never smiled’

AFP | AIDAN JONES
Published : Oct 14, 2016, 6:20 am IST
Updated : Oct 14, 2016, 6:20 am IST

Thailand’s King Bhumibol Adulyadej was the revered “father of the nation” whose reign spanned seven politically turbulent decades, shielded by harsh defamation laws and an intense personality cult.

Thailand’s King Bhumibol Adulyadej
 Thailand’s King Bhumibol Adulyadej

Thailand’s King Bhumibol Adulyadej was the revered “father of the nation” whose reign spanned seven politically turbulent decades, shielded by harsh defamation laws and an intense personality cult.

Thailand’s absolute monarchy was abolished in 1932, but under the official title of King Rama IX, Bhumibol exercised a powerful moral authority and also a political one as his reign matured — albeit often away from the public eye.

 

Crowned in 1950, many analysts attribute his longevity during an era pock-marked with political violence to deep ties with a military that relied on his official endorsement of their repeated coups.

“He viewed it as a partnership for developing the country,” said Paul Handley, author of the unauthorised biography The King Never Smiles, which is banned in Thailand.

The army’s latest power grab was in May 2014, when it toppled the elected government of Yingluck Shinawatra.

Right up until his death after a long period of ill health, Bhumibol was seen as a unifying figure in the deeply divided country.

But the end of his reign will heighten fears of an eruption of the turmoil that has blighted the kingdom since Yingluck’s billionaire brother Thaksin was overthrown as premier in 2006.

 

Helped by well-publicised rural development projects, the soft-spoken, bespectacled king enjoyed an image of a benevolent moral force in a kingdom with a long history of instability and political bloodshed.

That reputation was carefully embossed by ritual, a well-oiled propaganda machine and a tough royal defamation law.

In 2011, Forbes Magazine rated Bhumibol as the world’s richest monarch.

But despite his wealth, the keen saxophonist, photographer and sailor was seen as in touch with ordinary Thais.

“In the world of royalty he had a yacht that was five metres long, he had palaces but they were small,” said Handley, who is now an AFP journalist.

 

“He didn’t surround himself with opulence and people respected him for it... They saw him as a pure figure.”

Thais are taught about Bhumibol’s good works at school, cinema-goers have to stand for the royal anthem at the start of films, while people prostrated themselves, or crawled, in his presence.

Giant portraits of the king — and queen — pepper towns and cities across the country, while photos of the monarch adorn many Thai households.

Bhumibol remained widely popular up until his death despite spending much of his later life in hospital.

Location: Thailand, Bangkok