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King Bhumibol is dead

I grew up in a country that has not one, but nine royal families.

Thus, when I first heard about Thailand’s King Bhumibol (Rama IX), I thought I knew what to expect.

Instead, I received a little surprise. His Majesty was neither arrogant, ignorant nor brutish. Indeed, he had a delicate face with small, pointy features and large, owl-sized glasses that appeared to be slipping off his nose whenever he made one of his famous forays into Thailand's long-neglected interior, a camera slung nonchalantly around his neck.           

The ninth occupant of the Chakri throne was the apogee of humility and understatement. He seemed to shrink from the limelight and withdraw into his own passions: saxophone playing and rural irrigation schemes.
I could never quite get over the idea of man so powerful that he could summon and berate mere squabbling politicians as they lay prostrate before him whilst also possessing a certain childlike-shyness.

Many years later, in Central Java, I was to meet another ruler, Sri Sultan Hamengkubuwono IX from the illustrious (and extremely anti-Dutch) Yogyakarta ruling house, who I discovered one addressed quite simply as “Pak Sultan” or “Mr Sultan.”

'Glorify His Prestige' by Kraisak Chirachaisakul (2014). - Pic credit Numthong Gallery

READ: Thai King Bhumibol, world's longest-reigning monarch, dies - palace

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Given the revolutionary ethos unleashed by President Sukarno many decades earlier, the informality was perhaps understandable.

By contrast in the Philippines, a country of local chieftains – a fact of life that has barely altered since the Spanish era – the idea of Kingship had never really penetrated beyond Mindanao and the Visayas.     

The concepts and practice of monarchy have developed very differently depending on where you are in the region.

'BAPPAJJA' by Kraisak Chirachaisakul (2012) - Credit photo Numthong Gallery

So as King Bhumibol finally drew his last breath; as man, history and legend fused into one, most of us Southeast Asians viewed the events through contrasting cultural perspectives.

Having said that, all of us are impressed at the solemn and dignified grief of the Thai people.

Of course, social media has made it far more difficult for the Chakri dynasty to maintain their mystique.

We have heard too much about lèse-majesté laws, spoilt children, poodles with military decorations and strange midnight parties not to be sceptical of the great man, or rather, his family.

But then again, in Southeast Asia we know all too well about how the wayward offspring of icons have tarnished the reputations of their fathers.

Ascending to the throne in 1946 after the controversial death of his brother Ananda (Rama VIII), King Bhumibol and his advisors refashioned Thailand’s national narrative around the fresh-faced charms of the young monarch and his beautiful wife, Queen Sirikit.

They did so in alliance with a succession of military rulers and the Bangkok-based aristocracy. But Bhumibol’s deft image-managing allowed him to emerge from the tumult of the Cold War (including localised squalls like the 1976 Thammasat University massacre), with his reputation intact and indeed, enhanced when compared to the juntas.

Virtually every single great national achievement or epoch was depicted as being the result of royal benevolence or activism, including the apparent end to absolutist rule in 1932.

Certainly, Thailand under his reign emerged as a major regional economic player, with a reasonably educated, industrious populace, as well as manufacturing and tourism sectors that continue to be the envy of its neighbours.

'MY LOVE' by Kraisak Chirachaisakul (2012) - Photo credit Numthong Gallery

But this has to be balanced with the fact that political polarisation, as well as regional disparities—between supporters of the deposed populist Thaksin Shinawatra and his royalist nemeses, between Bangkok and the restive north and south – were not managed effectively and have in fact worsened.
Meanwhile, as Bhumibol aged, he seemed to retreat into his semi-godlike status, withdrawing from public affairs and apparently doing little to intervene as his people turned on each other.

Moreover, the undue focus on one man and the institution of the monarchy meant that alternative sources of legitimacy were effectively hobbled just as the Kingdom came face-to-face with a range of sociopolitical challenges.

A ruler is supposed to be the font of justice – restraining the strong and protecting the weak, as well managing and reconciling the competing interests of a country’s majorities and minorities.

But with the Crown weakened and distracted, the Chakris quietly slipped into a deep and impenetrable silence.

So if 1992 was the zenith of King Bhumibol's prestige, the 2006 anti-Thaksin coup and the brutal 2010 crackdown that followed were arguably the twin nadirs.

The kind of power and influence wielded by His Majesty is quite unlike cold, hard cash. It cannot be put away in a bank to multiply discreetly.

It can only grow if it's used and wisely so.

History and the Thai people will ultimately decide whether the King’s actions in the tail-end of his 70-year reign were justified, whether they were the right or only course that could have been taken.

One thing is clear though: the best way to judge a person’s legacy is how long it lasts after he or she exits the stage.

What King Bhumibol did for Thailand and what he meant to his people is clear.

But—as the Kingdom stares down a whole series of great unknowns—the questions of how long any of it will last will grow.