A king in the service of his people
Thailand's story remains intrinsically connected with the life and times of the world's longest-reigning monarch
Thailand’s position today as one of Southeast Asia’s foremost economies, with strong fundamentals for future growth has not come easily; and undoubtedly the country’s story would be different without the devotion and leadership of His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej. Throughout many periods of conflict and instability, Thailand as a nation has turned to HM the King, frequently referred to as the Soul of the Nation given his role as a unifying force for the Thai people towards common goals of unity and prosperity.
His reign began in 1946 in the face of tragic and turbulent circumstances for Thailand and the Southeast Asian region as a whole, but King Bhumibol is now the world’s longest-reigning monarch, renowned for always committing himself to working for the benefit of Thailand’s people and the country’s development.
Upon his official coronation on May 5 1950, royal concern rapidly focused upon the key challenges facing Thailand, and how His Majesty could turn his leadership into a helpful force for Thailand to grow.
Following the withdrawal of once influential European powers in the wake of World War II, conditions in Thailand were ripe to ferment the spread of communism. King Bhumibol’s leadership was paramount in maintaining unity throughout Thailand, warning against the fundamental threats of communism and encouraging the myriad development programmes that would ultimately expand upon the freedoms and opportunities available to the Thai people. As a result, Thailand avoided the devastating conflicts that developed in neighbours such as Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam throughout the 1960s and 70s.
King Bhumibol embarked upon perhaps the most comprehensive portfolio of development programmes ever undertaken by a monarch. He spent the first 10 years of his reign travelling throughout Thailand in order to learn about and assess the key development challenges facing the country at the time. His Majesty travelled as much as 30,000 miles each year by road, and was the first monarch to visit the northeastern state of Isan. The knowledge King Bhumibol garnered throughout this period laid the foundation for the infrastructure and development programmes he has been supporting ever since.
King Bhumibol has often shown leadership to bring the people of Thailand together throughout the country’s sometimes turbulent history – the most potent example being the events of September 1973. Widespread student demonstrations at the perceived incompetence and dishonesty of the government resulted in tragedy when security forces opened fire, killing 77 and injuring 857. His Majesty ordered all security forces around the palace to remove live ammunition from their weapons, and then opened the palace gates to allow demonstrators take refuge. That evening, resolute, he addressed the Thai people live on television. In a rare intervention into politics, the king used his moral authority to absolve the incumbent Thai Council of Ministers from duty and appoint a new administration to bring the country back from the point of abyss.
King Bhumibol also intervened in a political dispute in 1992, after the controversial appointment of General Suchinda Kraprayoon as Prime Minister. Protests led by a retired soldier, Major General Chamlong Srimuang, engulfed Bangkok. On the evening of Wednesday May 20, as anarchy and confrontation spread on the city’s streets, King Bhumibol was shown on television with both General Suchinda and Major General Chamlong sitting at his feet, while the king spoke with regal calm. “Everyone knows how confused the situation is and that it may well lead the country to complete ruin. I would request especially of the two of you, General Suchinda and Major General Chamlong, to sit down and consider together in a conciliatory manner and not in a confrontational manner, a way to solve the problem, because our country does not belong to any one or two persons, but belongs to everyone. Therefore, we must cooperate with one another and not confront one another, because the danger is that when people get in a state of blind fury and act in uncontrolled violence, they will not even know what they are fighting about or how to solve the problem. They will only know that they must win. But can there ever be a winner? Of course not. It is so very dangerous... If great destruction occurs in Bangkok, then the country as a whole is also destroyed. In such a case, what is the point of anyone feeling proud to be the winner, when standing on a pile of ruins and rubble?”
The effects of the King’s words of reason were remarkable: protestors moved from the streets and soldiers returned to their barracks by daybreak the following morning. Major General Chamlong moved to a forest retreat and General Suchinda immediately resigned from politics, admitting his mistakes.
Despite constitutional limitations on his power, His Majesty’s authority is drawn from the immense popularity and moral authority earned over decades. Indeed, King Bhumibol not only serves as an example to the Thai people, but more broadly for those that have wealth or influence throughout the international community, as role model for how to best employ such wealth or influence.
Having witnessed the devastating economic fallout and subsequent impacts from the Asian Financial Crisis in 1997, King Bhumibol turned his attention to considering a more sustainable and secure way of handling financial matters and economic affairs. Based upon his wealth of knowledge through experiences alongside Thailand’s rural communities, the king consolidated this into a formal approach now known as ‘Sufficiency Economy’.
Thailand today stands as the second largest economy in ASEAN, a country with an enviable level of almost full employment, one of the most competitive economies in which to do business, and a land of opportunity for both domestic and international businesses alike, where the living standards of people throughout the country continue to improve. King Bhumibol was awarded the UN Human Development Lifetime Achievement Award by Kofi Annan in 2006 for his contribution to Thailand’s current success, and the strong foundations he has laid for the future.
PROJECT TEAM: Alisdair Jones, Vanessa Massimini and Christian Carter