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In June 2006, King Bhumibol marked 60 years on the throne of Thailand, amid an outpouring ofadoration from the Thai people and an impressive show of respect from other royal families aroundthe world. Thirteen reigning monarchs attended the celebrations in person, and 12 others sent royalrepresentatives. The only reigning royal families not represented were those of Saudi Arabia and Nepal.The Saudi absence was due to the ill-health of the octogenarian King Abdullah bin Abdul-Aziz, officiallyat least, but relations between the two countries had been tarnished by a dispute over the unsolved theftof a famed blue diamond and other priceless gems from the Saudi royals in which Thailand's police andpowerful establishment figures were implicated. The Nepalese monarchy was still in turmoil followingthe 2001 massacre of King Birendra, Queen Aishwarya and many of their relatives by their son, CrownPrince Dipendra, who went on a drunken rampage through the Narayanhity Royal Palace in Kathmanduwith a Heckler & Koch MP5 submachinegun and an M16 assault rifle before committing suicide.Over several days of joyous festivities, millions of Thais wore the royal colour of yellow to show theirrespect. Fireworks lit up the sky, and the assembled monarchs watched the unforgettable sight of a royalbarge procession, with 52 sleek dragon-headed vessels rowed by liveried Thai oarsmen gliding down theChao Phraya past the Grand Palace. An estimated one million people crowded into Bangkok's RoyalPlaza on Friday June 9 as Bhumibol gave a public address - only his third in six decades - from a palacebalcony. Many millions more watched intently on television. Later that day at the auspicious time of19:19, hundreds of thousands who had gathered around the brightly illuminated buildings of the GrandPalace lit candles in his honour.In a confidential U.S. embassy cable, American Ambassador Ralph "Skip" Boyce described thecelebrations:The multi-day gala offered dramatic and often times moving evidence of the nation's respect andadoration for its monarch...While the Thai people's respect and reverence for the 78 year old monarch is often cited, theweekend's celebration was a rare occasion to see - and feel - the depths of this sentiment inperson. In contrast to the tens of thousands who have rallied against and in support of the Thaksingovernment, the King's public address on Friday at [the] throne hall inspired an estimated onemillion Thai to brave the mid-day sun to listen to their "father" speak... Much of the audience hadcamped out since the evening before...All local television stations carried the same live feed of each event, which featured crowd shotsof attendees alternately crying and smiling. Late night television shifted to cover the opening ofthe World Cup, but even this event was colored by the King's celebration: a newspaper cartoonexplained that most Thai people were cheering for Brazil because the Brazilians wear yellowuniforms.It was an astonishing testament to Bhumibol's achievements in the six decades since he inherited thecrown at such a perilous time for the monarchy and in such tragic circumstances.
Through disciplined training, astute image management, and above all dedication to an incessantregime of ritual, Bhumibol assumed this exalted role. Ritual imagery conveyed to the people thathe had unique sacrality, wisdom, and goodness. They saw proof in the way powerful generals,bankers, statesmen and even the most respected monks prostrated themselves before him - eventhough the law requiring prostration before the king had supposedly been abolished a centurybefore. And they saw proof in his dour countenance, exuding at the same time serenity andsuffering. [Handley, The King Never Smiles]The United States played an essential supporting role in elevating Bhumibol to his exalted reputation asa monarch of matchless sagacity and virtue. Particularly after Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat seized powerin a 1957 coup, Thailand's military became a crucial ally of the United States in fighting communism inSoutheast Asia. Central to their strategy was using and boosting Rama IX's image. Time reported on thestrategy in a 1966 article:Seen on a soft spring night, the luminous spires of the Temple of the Emerald Buddha seemto float over Bangkok scarcely touched by the blare of traffic, the neon slashes of bars andthe ragged hurly-burly of mainland Southeast Asia's largest city. So too does the Kingdom ofThailand, proud heir to virtually seven centuries of uninterrupted independence, seem to soarabove the roiling troubles of the region all around it.Neighboring Laos is half in Communist hands, Cambodia hapless host to the Viet Cong, Burmaa xenophobic military backwater. The Chinese talons are less than 100 miles away, North VietNam a bare 20 minutes as the U.S. fighter-bombers fly from their Thai bases. Everywhere on thegreat peninsula, militant Communism, poverty, misery, illiteracy, misrule and a foundering senseof nationhood are the grim order of the Asian day.With one important exception: The lush and smiling realm of Their Majesties King Bhumibol(pronounced Poom-ee-pone) Adulyadej and Queen Sirikit, which spreads like a greenmeadow of stability, serenity and strength from Burma down to the Malaysian peninsula - thegeopolitical heart of Southeast Asia. Once fabled Siam, rich in rice, elephants, teak and legend,Thailand (literally, Land of the Free) today crackles with a prosperity, a pride of purpose, and acommitment to the fight for freedom that is Peking's despair and Washington's delight.The meadow inevitably has its dark corners, notably the less fecund northeast, where Redinsurgency is struggling for a foothold. But the military oligarchy that rules Thailand in theKing's name is confident the Communists will not succeed. So is the U.S. For Thailand is thatrarity in the postwar world: a nation avowedly antiCommunist, unashamedly willing to gopartners with the U.S. in attacking its problems - and its enemies...Rarer and more precious than rubies in Southeast Asia, however, is political stability and its sinequa non: a sense of belonging to a nation. The Thais have both. Though various ruling officershave come and gone since a 1932 coup gently displaced the King as absolute ruler, Kings andsoldiers have combined, in a typical Thai equilibrium of accommodation, to provide a smoothchain linkage of government.
At 6 a.m. on the morning of May 20, Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, the most beloved royal afterBhumibol himself, appeared on television pleading for the killing to stop. Her intervention made thefront pages of afternoon newspapers. At 9:30 p.m., Bhumibol summoned Chamlong and Suchinda.What happened next became the stuff of legend, with photographs and video of it seen around the world.Handley tells the story at the start of The King Never Smiles:The image was scratchy, the sound poor, reminiscent of television 40 years before. Two menwere prostrated on a thick carpet, one wearing the coarse indigo garb of a Thai peasant, the othera trim business suit. Legs tucked behind them submissively, they gazed up at a stern figure seatedon a gilt-trimmed settee.With aides crouched at his flanks, the figure in the chair addressed the men, and even though hisvoice was muffled, the image spoke loud and clear: a father, calmly but with utmost firmness andauthority, scolding his sons for fighting...Just at that moment, Suchinda's troops were bearing down on a university where thousands ofstudents were gathered for a new confrontation. Neither side showed signs of compromise.The two men now knelt side by side, bowing to the fatherly figure seated in the middle, a manwho held no political office, wielded no arms, and commanded no soldiers...As television cameras recorded the event, King Bhumibol softly reprimanded Suchinda andChamlong for the damage wreaked by their personal rivalry and selfish desires. It was their moraland patriotic duty to stop, he said, before the entire kingdom was destroyed.His halting words carried neither order nor demand. Yet within hours the violence ceased,soldiers and demonstrators returned home, and both Suchinda and Chamlong withdrew frompolitics. "Who will soon forget the remarkable picture of the military ruler and the oppositionleader together on their knees before the king of Thailand?" the Washington Post said admiringlythe next day.
No longer able to maneuver in and out of his yellow Rolls Royce, King Bhumibol left Sirirajhospital, where he has been since mid-September, in a wheelchair pushed up the back rampof a VW van to make the brief trip to the Grand Palace's throne hall for his birthday morningaudience. The audience, before a select crowd of several hundred officials, was only the thirdpublic sighting of the King in three months...The King settled into his throne in all his royal regalia, against a spectacular backdrop. Theceremony, normally carried live on TV, ran this year with a 15-20 minute delay, with observerssuggesting the delay was designed to avoid any potentially embarrassing moments. Sensing theaudience might well be one of the last such occasions, the normally well-behaved crowd wasunusually anxious, pushing in the back to get a better view of the King's arrival and requiring thepalace police to restore order, according to one of our contacts.In their greeting remarks, Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn and Prime Minister Abhisit both hailedthe King's full recovery. What those in attendance and watching on TV saw was something quitedifferent: their beloved monarch leaning markedly to his stronger right side, barely moving hisleft hand/arm - leading to speculation that he may have suffered another minor stroke whilein hospital - and speaking with a soft monotone of a voice. The King's message was a familiarone: urging Thais to join hands to help the country return to normalcy, and to set aside personalbenefits for the sake of the national interest, stability prosperity.At the end of the short remarks, the golden curtain separating Bhumibol from the audience closedslowly, accompanied by a blinding flash of cameras. The moment carried with it the metaphoricalfeel of a curtain closing on an era - a reaction we heard from many contacts we talked to overthe succeeding several days; many Thais cried as they watched the curtain close to the RoyalAnthem. Later that evening, hundreds of thousands of pink-clad Thai turned out in downtownBangkok for a candle-light tribute to the King, mixed with fireworks in his honor...In his remarks, the Crown Prince also vowed to do his best as a Thai and as a member of theChakri dynasty to serve the country - with many people seeing that remark as a a reminderthat sooner rather than later Vajiralongkorn will likely succeed his father as Rama X, the tenthmember of the Chakri dynasty... 2b1af7f3a8