December the 5th is the 78th birthday of King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand and is therefore Thai Father’s Day.
To Thais, the King is the father of the Thai nation. He’s been King longer than India has been independent, and has seen the country change from a rural backwater to a major developing economy. Through fascist military coups and brutal repression, he’s been the steadfast figurehead and is genuinely loved by the entire Thai population. You expect portraits of monarch and presidents in government buildings – but in Thailand, every private home has a portrait of the King, high on the wall so that his head is higher than anyone else’s. This is my favourite picture; he’s hiked into the countryside to visit some remote village, and he’s wiping sweat off his face. Thais love this picture, too; it shows how he cares about his subjects.
Ratchadamnoen Avenue will be thronged with hundreds of thousands of Thai people, sweltering but glad to be there to wish him happy birthday.
Behind the celebrations, however, is a worry that every Thai feels but few discuss. The King is 78, and a heavy smoker and can’t last forever. An old prophesy says that the Chakri dynasty, of which this king is King Rama 9, will end when its ninth member dies. And the problem is the succession.
The King has three children in the immediate succession (one daughter, Ubol Ratana, lost her rights when she married an American). The Thai people love his daughter, Sirinthorn, who devotes her life to the King’s projects, working for the poor, who speaks and publishes poetry in French, English, Chinese and Thai, and who is (I’m told by people who have met her) a delightful, cultured person. Many Thai people have photos of her in their house and speak admiringly of her, and the King changed the law to allow a woman to acceed to the throne.
But the heir to the throne is Sirinthorn’s elder brother, Prince Vajiralongkorn. I’ve never met the Prince, but met his ex-wife several times and know people who’ve met him. In a country where speaking ill of Royalty is against the law, dark rumours abound about the Prince’s lifestyle and behaviour. I’ve heard many and, although repeating them would be purely hearsay (and probably get me banned from ever visting the Kingdom again), it’s fair to say that the Prince has nothing like the level of popular affection that Sirinthorn enjoys. You’ll understand what I mean when I say that I’ve never seen a photo of the Prince in a private house or business.
But the Prince will certainly become King. He’s an army man, and in Thailand the army is never far from the levers of power. The army has shown itself capable of going against the wishes of the Thai people before: as recently as 1992, the army caused the “disappearance” of hundreds of pro-democracy protestors, demonstrating against the installation of General Suchinda as Prime Minister.
Put it this way: I wouldn’t like to be living in Bangkok when the King goes to meet the Buddha. So, happy birthday, King Bhumibol. May you have many more.