In the afternoon of October 13, King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand, Rama IX of the Chakri dynasty, passed away at the age of 88, in the 70th year of his reign. I ran to a café in Sukhumvit to watch the announcement, as streets in Bangkok grew quiet, people huddled around television screens, many sobbing in disbelief. It was, the Bangkok Post wrote: “our most feared moment — we knew it would happen, but when it did the blow was grave... We grew up watching him tirelessly devote his time, energy and money to help the needy across the country. He was true to his promise.” The following day I went to the Grand Palace to join the half-million people who came to witness the solemn motorcade bearing the King’s body from Siriraj Hospital to the Dusit Maha Prasat throne hall. There was a special grace, dignity and warmth among the crowd; people shared water and food, made way for elderly mourners, gave comfort to those who were overcome with grief or fainted from the heat.
A young lady from Bangkok held my hand as the motorcade passed and I succumbed to tears. For so many years I loved and admired this great and good man, an artistic prodigy who excelled in science and statecraft, a catalyst of modern Asia who never sought regional dominance yet made his nation a powerful axis of global influence, who stated, when he ascended to the throne in 1950, aged just 23: “My place in this world is being among the Thai people.”
It is a powerful moment in the 800-year history of Siam, a time to study the scope and brilliance of King Bhumibol’s life and achievements. Throughout this official month of mourning, Thai TV is playing newsreels of the King’s childhood in Switzerland; his marriage to the ravishing Queen Sikirit, daughter of the Thai ambassador to Paris; his being ordained as a Buddhist monk; performing the ancestral rites of coronation; a triumphant visit to the United States in 1960, where the stylish young royals were showered with a tickertape parade in New York City: the King gracefully addressing the US Congress and playing jazz with Benny Goodman: a 1964 trip to Austria where his musical compositions are performed by the Tonkunstier Orchestra.
Yet for most of his reign, King Bhumibol did not make state visits around the planet: he stayed in Thailand. Newsreels show a man of action, marching through floods and fields, in military fatigues or a sports jacket, holding maps and cameras, kneeling the dust to talk with his people. When he was enthroned as a constitutional monarch in 1950, Thailand was emerging from the Japanese occupation during the Second World War, and the vast majority of Thais lived in rural poverty. The young King had to navigate political intrigue and Communist rebels fuelled by the Cold War and the escalation of Marxist insurgencies in Indochina. He created the Office of the Royal Development Project Board, which launched thousands of initiatives in infrastructure, healthcare, education, art and commerce. His vision and energy swiftly elevated Thailand’s standard of living, fostered national unity, nullified the Communist threat and made Thailand the most stable and prosperous nation in Southeast Asia.
Most remarkably, this grandson of King Chulalongkorn, Rama V, was not in the direct line of succession. Peter Galbraith, son of John Kenneth Galbraith, the celebrated US ambassador to India of the Nehru era, just shared this little-known history: “Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand would never have become King without my grandfather. Charles Atwater was consul-general of Siam in New York in 1927 when the King’s father was studying medicine at Harvard. The Thai Constitution requires that the King be born in Thailand. My grandfather came up with the idea of having the state department cede the princess’ room at Mount Auburn Hospital at Cambridge, Massachusetts, to Thailand for the 24 hours. Thus Bhumibol remained eligible to become King, which he did in 1946.” Peter’s mother Kitty shared with me her memories of hosting the King’s parents, Mom Sangwan and Mahidol Adulyadej, at the Galbraiths’ home: “They were erudite, delightful, sophisticated, I could see how they shaped their children’s worldview.” Which made King Bhumibol a singularly modern monarch.
Bhumibol was also called the Jazz King, and Thai TV is daily screening his many live concerts — he played the saxophone, trumpet, tuba and piano — and the elegant, lush hit songs he composed and recorded: Falling Rain; Hungry Man’s Blues; Near Dawn. He was also an accomplished painter and photographer, inventor and patent holder, yet he faithfully preserved the ancient rituals of Siamese kingship and the Buddhist faith, while building a secular state. When his death was announced, the leaders of Thailand’s Buddhist, Muslim, Christian, Hindu and Sikh communities spoke of how the King was the anchor of religious harmony. “He was the glue”, said a Thai friend, “who preserved our past as he created our future. And he did it with unerring poise — no small feat”.
Somtow Sucharitkul, Thailand’s virtuoso composer and creator of the Dasjati opera series about the 10 lives of the Buddha, wrote: “In the rest of the world, there seem to be two kinds of monarchs — those with absolute power, and those whose function is ceremonial and symbolic. Our King fell into neither of those categories as on one hand, he did not wield political power, yet on the other, he possessed a moral authority more powerful than that of any government this country has ever had. In the end it was not his exalted status that commanded all this love, it was he himself — his actions, his selflessness, his heart.”
In his 70-year reign King Bhumibol steered his nation through massive social, economic and political transformations on a continent besieged by totalitarian regimes that slaughtered millions, destroyed sanghas and lineages, inflicting unspeakable trauma and loss. Many Thais tell me they believe Thailand was spared many such horrors because of the spiritual force of their monarch. In his coronation address, King Bhumibol Adulyadej stated: “I shall reign with Dhamma for the benefit and happiness of all the Thai people” — and he strove to follow the precepts of Dasarajadhamma, a Pali term for the tenfold virtues of the king defined in Theravada Buddhism, whereby the sovereign becomes a dhammaraja, whose virtue bring happiness to his people. There is a Tibetan saying that such a leader is as rare as a star in daylight. Farewell, kind Dharma King, we shall not see your like again....