King Bhumibol dies: A thousand days of mourning won’t mend millions of broken hearts

The Kingdom of Thailand has lost its spiritual father following the sad announcement of the death of their long-serving King. A man of the people, and good intentions, he served as a unifying figure in an increasingly divided country. 

By Holly Reeves

King Bhumibol was a king like no other, a semi-divine figure that had led and shaped his nation from an agricultural backwater of Southeast Asia to one of the most visited places in the world. His loss is sorely felt.

A statement from the palace yesterday said the monarch passed away peacefully at 3.52pm Thursday at Siriraj hospital in Bangkok. “He is now in heaven and may be looking over Thai citizens from there,” Prime Minster Prayuth said in an address.

Following the announcement, Prayuth also confirmed that Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn was next in line for the throne, as per the late King’s own wishes. However, a later statement clarified that this transition would not happen immediately to allow the Crown Prince to mourn his father with the rest of the country.

The father of a nation

As a foreigner living in Thailand, the country’s commitment to the Royal Family was surprising. I am British and have grown up under the watchful eye of our own long-serving monarch, but the power of Rama X was a force for good, for all time, and for all Thai people. I have learned through experience that to love Thailand, is to love the King.

From the moment you enter his country, his picture is everywhere; taking pride of place in shops, offices, restaurants and homes. Any traveller on the metro in the early evening is reminded of his ever-present influence as the national anthem stops the ant-like scurrying of a metropolis for minutes at a time. And this did not come easily; it was hard fought by the young king who inherited the reformist tradition held dear by his grandfather.

He gained the throne in 1946, on the tragic death of his older brother, but delayed his ascension until 1950 on completion of his education. And having spent his early life and formative years overseas the late King brought new knowledge, and ideas, about the future of his nation. But he arrived home at a difficult time; Thais were putting memories of their wartime occupation by Japan behind them and looking to rebuild their connections with the wider world.

As a young man in his twenties, Bhumibol was often sidelined by a military government that thought him inexperienced in matters of state. Instead, he took on thousands of projects; establishing hospitals, building dams, and introducing agricultural reform in a way that his nation noticed. And through this compassion and concern for people at all levels, he rebuilt the prestige and influence of his throne after his family’s loss of absolute power 14 years earlier.

He met the poor that no-one else listened to and reflected their concerns, introducing experimental farming and supporting co-operatives. In this way, he acquired a dedicated following across the Thai political spectrum, from the sophisticated hi-so to the lowest village farmer. Today his daughter continues this legacy and is much loved nationwide.

Decades of dignity

Over 70 years of dignified rule, Bhumibol reinforced his position as dhammaraja — a wise monarch that looked to Theravada Buddhist principles. He, together with his wife Sirikit, built a new agenda for the monarchy that put “nation, religion and king” into the very soul of successive generations of Thais. It is these people that have flooded the streets overnight, distraught at the loss of their “father.”

In the many thoughtful pieces published across the world today, commentators will look to the defining moments of his reign, such as the televised meeting held in 1992 following clashes between pro-democracy demonstrators and security forces that killed about 40 people. In a few words, he gently admonished them for their recklessness, reminding them that personal rivalries could not threaten the nation. Three days later the prime minister resigned.

But there will also be darker moments to consider. He was an advocate of the Army, often appearing in military dress himself, and more comfortable with the intentions of military men that those of politicians. As such his voice was not heard at key times in the recent cycle of coups and protest, or during tumultuous times such as the October 6 massacre of university students. These are not times that will be celebrated.

So what happens now? As a constitutional monarch with no hard role in government, the administration of the country is not affected by the King’s passing. However, Prayuth and his band of generals must tread carefully in the weeks to come as shock, becomes grief and then anger. He needs to look at his policies, and his plans, to ensure that the heart and soul of the nation are looked after in a way that His Majesty would approve of. King Bhumibol’s legacy, and his love for the people, will be much discussed in the days, weeks and months to come; what happens next must do him proud.