Saturday, December 01, 2007

Bangkok turns yellow to honour the unifying force


ON THE morning of June 9, 1946, Rama VIII was found dead with a single gunshot to the forehead. With the mysterious death of 20-year-old King Ananda, his 18-year-old brother ascended the Chakri throne to become Rama IX.

Rama IX was born on Dec 5, 1927, in Boston, Massachusetts, making him the only king ever to be born in the United States. He was named Bhumibol Adulyadej, which means ‘Strength of the Land, Incomparable Power’, by his uncle, Rama VII (King Prajadhipok).

King Prajadhipok was the half brother of Bhumibol’s father, Prince Mahidol, who was the 69th son of King Chulalongkorn (Rama V).

Starting today, most Thais will be adorned in yellow (the colour which symbolises Monday, the day he was born) to celebrate King Bhumibol’s 80th birthday on Wednesday.

The king, who is the world’s longest-reigning monarch, is a revered figure in Thailand.
Proof of his subjects’ veneration is in the photographs of King Bhumibol put up at almost all homes in the kingdom.

On a recent trip to an Akha (a hilltribe) village in Chiang Rai, which borders Myanmar and Laos, it was amazing to see snapshots of King Bhumibol snipped from newspapers and magazines adorning the walls of the bamboo huts.

Amazing, as the villagers were granted Thai citizenship only in the last few years, after a stateless existence in the golden triangle (an area encompassing Myanmar, Laos and Thailand, which used to be the world’s largest producer of opium).

“He is my king,” Ake Chume, a 50-year-old Akha man, declared when I asked about the photographs. Playing the devil’s advocate, I asked: “But what has he done for you?”

“My king’s royal project has helped me,” he explained.

It is easy to speak to rural folks like Ake about their adoration for their king.

But when it comes to some Bangkokians, the royal subject turns into a hushed whisper of coded conversation.

Take the example of my chat with an American-educated 20-something Thai who insisted we used a “nickname” to refer to her king as she was afraid the breakfast crowd in the trendy Sukhumvit cafe would know who we were whispering about.

Even Thai academics are hesitant to discuss their king in public.

For instance, at Bangkok’s Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand (FCCT), Thongchai Winichakul, who is the most feted modern Thai historian, spoke intriguingly about how Prince Vajiravudh (Rama VI) succeeded his father, King Chulalongkorn.

The US-based historian, however, politely told the audience that he would not discuss the hottest topic revolving the current monarchy – the succession.

“We are in the penthouse of the FCCT but we are still on Thai soil,” he said on the night of Nov 20. Later he explained that lese majeste (a French expression which means ‘insulting the monarchy’) hung over the head of academics and journalists who were critical of the royal family.

Nevertheless, Thongchai, a former student leader who was detained for two years after the bloody Oct 6, 1976, military crackdown on students, acknowledged that there were Thai thinkers such as Sulak Sivarak who have not filtered their views on the monarchy.

A few days before last year’s Sept 19 coup, I had a filtered conversation with a respected Thai historian who I was meeting for the first time. Amazed that the Thai capital turned yellow on Mondays, I asked him why Thais adored King Bhumibol.

In polarised Thailand, he explained, the king is a unifying force. Using history, he gave an example on how the king unified his kingdom during one of its most polarised periods.

On May 18, 1992, General Suchinda Kraprayoon, a coup leader who had just appointed himself prime minister, ordered his men to shoot at demonstrators led by opposition politician Chamlong Srimuang, killing and injuring hundreds.

Two days later, as Thailand descended into chaos, a 9.30pm television broadcast showed Suchinda and Chamlong kneeling in front of King Bhumibol who scolded the two. Within hours of the royal scolding, the soldiers returned to their barracks, and the demonstrators to their homes.

This vision, the academic noted, bolstered the image of the King Bhumibol, who at the last count has reigned over 17 Thai constitutions, 18 coups and 24 prime ministers.

(Published in The Star on Dec 1, 2007)