Thailand’s King Bhumibol has urged his people to unite during a speech marking his 86th birthday. It comes at the end of two weeks of violent demonstrations against the democratically-elected government of Yingluck Shinawatra, demonstrations likely to continue once the monarchical festivities have ended.
Bangkok’s streets have seen a slew of protests, coups and counter-coups in the past few years, supporters of various factions bedecked in bright yellow, blue and red shirts alike. All the while, the ageing King has watched on, unable to intervene or offer promise of stability.
Thailand is a constitutional monarchy and the King has restricted powers, acting more as a figurehead than as a political player. That said, Bhumibol predates the institutionalization of constitutional monarchy. Prior to 1932, the Kings of Siam were all-powerful, revered by the poor as gods on earth and constrained by nobody.
This all changed with the bloodless Siamese Revolution of 1932, when a small contingent of army officers, bureaucrats and intellectuals forced King Prajadhipok to grant the Thai people a constitution and limit his own powers. He would abdicate his new, restricted role in 1935.
Because the overthrow of the monarchy was not the result of a popular revolution, the majority of the Thai population continued to hold the King in great reverence. This sentiment was only reinforced by the events of the succeeding years.
In December 1941, Japanese forces invaded Thailand. The boy King, Ananda Mahidol, was out of the country and his regent was powerless to oppose the wishes of the Prime Minister, Plaek Phibunsongkhram, who decided to call a ceasefire, align with the Japanese and officially join the Axis powers during WWII.
The Japanese would subsequently utilize Thailand for its natural resources and manpower. Furthermore, as the war began to slip out of the Japanese grasp, a fierce Allied bombing campaign against Thailand began, devastating parts of the country.
Despite having avoided a full-blooded Japanese invasion, the Thais had suffered terribly during WWII. Under the absolute monarchy prior to 1932, the country had avoided the colonization that had plagued its neighbors and yet now, having rid itself of monarchical rule, Thailand had been plunged into the more damaging dictatorship of Phibunsongkhram.
Ananda Mahidol was assassinated on his return to Thailand in 1946 and succeeded by Bhumibol. The monarchy retained an unchallenged place of worship within Thai society, having attained an association with past stability and prosperity. Bhumibol, the longest-serving head of state in the world, has never lost this.
Despite being subjected to a position of political feebleness by successive dictatorships in the post-WWII period, Bhumibol’s ceremonial importance did help create a unity amongst the population that prevented any of the violent upheavals seen in other Southeast Asian countries. His presence probably helped mitigate the violence in a succession of coups in the second half of the twentieth century.
In 1992, Bhumibol revealed his political potential when he brokered a transition to democracy, at a time when rival factions were warring on the streets and protester death tolls were soaring.
It is perhaps illuminating that in recent years, particularly during the Thaksin Shinawatra and Abhisit Vejjajiva regimes, violent street protests have increased as Bhumibol has become increasingly ill and frail.
The fact that a truce has been signed for the King’s birthday is testament to the persisting reverence held for the Thai monarchy. Whether Bhumibol has the physical capacity and political will to ensure this uneasy peace lasts remains to be seen.
In one of Southeast Asia’s most unique country’s, the traditions of monarchical obedience and political coups look set to go head-to-head for a while longer yet.