Wednesday, June 14, 2006

The Uses of Kings

HUA HIN, Thailand – It is hard to ignore the presence of His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the world’s longest-serving monarch, here in this resort town where he maintains his principal residence. Giant portraits of the King and sometimes of the Queen dominate the town square and adorn the facades of major buildings.

In another country this might be called a cult of personality, except that here it does not have that feeling. There is nothing particularly heroic in his poses. The thin, bespectacled King stares unsmilingly into the camera looking like he would rather shuck off the heavy royal robes and pick up his saxophone.

The red, white and blue national flag of Thailand seems to be everywhere, on store fronts, private homes, along the streets, always paired with the yellow royal standard. All to honor the King’s Diamond Jubilee, the 60th anniversary of his accession to the throne on June 9, 1946. And I thought my own country was flag-happy.

It was touching to see how ordinary Thais have chosen to honor their King on this occasion. It seems like everybody in Hua Hin, indeed everybody in Thailand, has been wearing yellow T-shirts these past few days. No massed “unity” parades, no displays of military might, just the individual actions of millions of Thais plucking down a few baht to buy and then wear the shirts.

The rest of the world seems to have forgotten King Bhumibol. Back in the 1960s the Boston-born monarch enjoyed something of a vogue in the United States. Of course, he was younger then and more inclined to travel abroad than he is now. Americans took to the jazz-loving monarch, who jammed with the likes of Benny Goodman and Lionel Hampton.

Of course, at that time Thailand was an important ally in the neighboring war in Vietnam, and the King of Thailand was somebody to be cultivated by the powers in Washington.

The King does not travel abroad anymore, but he still plays weekly with long-time members of the royal jazz band at his palace in Hua Hin, even though some of the players are now in their 70s. Perhaps not coincidentally, our town hosted a big jazz festival the week before the ceremonies.

But King Bhumibol has other interests that are more directly appreciated by his people. He has a deep interest in such arcane subjects as water resource and soil management. It is said he knows the water table, drainage pattern of virtually every nook and valley in the Kingdom.

He is certainly the only monarch in the world who holds internationally recognized patents on rain-making. The world’s monarchs who descended on Bangkok last weekend were treated to multi-media presentations on cloud-seeding and the Royal Rain Project.

A week before the celebrations UN Secretary General Kofi Annan flew into our little town to present the King with a lifetime award for his work on sustained development. His palace in Bangkok has many experimental agricultural projects on the grounds.

It matters little whether these projects have had a measurable impact on the lives of ordinary Thais (although his interest in tropical dairy farming is said to have encouraged milk production and consumption.) The important thing is that they exist and that the people know they exist and know that their King is looking out for their interests.

The celebrations took place in the capital, Bangkok, but in recent years the King has spent more time in his other palaces. For a couple decades he lived and worked out of the royal palace in the northern city of Chiang Mai. For the past few years he has spent most of his time in Hua Hin, a small coastal town 200 km south of Bangkok that was first developed in the 1920s as a retreat for Bangkok’s elite.

He lives in what is technically the summer palace, Kla Kangwon, (which appropriately means “far from worries.”). When dignitaries such as the prime minister or the UN Secretary General, need to see him, they fly into the town’s little airport or by helicopter to the army base adjacent the palace..

Some 25 emperors, kings, sheiks, princes and sultans and their consorts or their heirs and descendants arrived in Bangkok to honor the King, most of them figureheads, a handful, such as the Sultan of Brunei, absolute monarchs. None of them has anywhere near the kind of influence that King Bhumibol wields in his own Kingdom.

Technically, Thailand has been a constitutional monarchy since a coup overthrew the last absolute monarch in 1932. In reality, the King has more than once intervened directly in Thai politics. But he uses his influence and authority judiciously.

During the demonstrations against Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra that engulfed Bangkok in March, the premier’s opponents implored the King to use his perfectly constitutional powers to dismiss Thaksin and appoint a non-party prime minister. He resisted their demands.

Only after the fiasco of the April 2 general election, boycotted by all major opposition parties, did the King finally speak up. In an address marking coronation day, he more or less ordered the heads of the three independent judiciaries to fix the “mess”. Virtually on cue, the judges found technical reasons to annul the election.

It is customary to say “long live the King,” on occasions such as these. But King Bhumibol, 78, has already lived a long life and enjoyed a long reign. What his subjects really wish is that King Bhumibol would live forever.


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September 20, 2006 at 4:39 AM  

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