Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Dec 12, 2016
King Bhumibol's reign over the second half of the last century and decade and a half of the current century has been tumultuous.
End of an era in Thailand

The venerated King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand, the longest reigning monarch in the world, died on 13th Oct, 2016 at the age of 88 after having been at the helm of the country for a period of 70 years. King Bhumibol ascended the throne at the tender age of 18 years, after his elder brother Ananda Mahidol, King Rama VIII of Siam was shot dead in mysterious circumstances in Bangkok in 1946.

During his reign, King Bhumibol earned the deepest respect from the vast majority of Thais. Bhumibol was the revered "father of the nation". Helped by well-publicised rural development projects, the soft-spoken, gentle but no-nonsense bespectacled king enjoyed an image of a benevolent moral force in a kingdom with a long history of instability and political bloodshed.

Few monarchs in history have earned the absolute adoration of their subjects to the same extent. His portraits, simultaneously stoic and benevolent, are displayed proudly in living rooms, shops, and public spaces throughout the country.

King Bhumibol's reign over the second half of the last century and decade and a half of the current century has been tumultuous to say the least. He has guided the affairs of the State through several coups, communist insurgency, rebellions and protests with a firm but gentle hand. His god-like status and respect he commanded from his subjects has been instrumental in maintaining peace and stability in the country notwithstanding the large numbers of uprisings that have occurred in the country. In this he has been helped not only by the aura that the institution of monarchy has bestowed on him but equally, if not more so, by his own persona and image of a ''People's King'' that he has created. This period also saw breakneck development which has resulted in a huge wealth disparity between a Bangkok-centric elite and the rural poor. To many Thais, Bhumibol was the only consistent force in a politically combustible country, his image burnished by ritual and shielded by a harsh royal defamation law. Yet the late king has left his son with a sharply divided country. Dubbed the “lost decade”, Thailand’s most recent period of political unrest coincided with Bhumibol’s increasingly frail health and fewer public appearances.

King Rama X

His eldest son Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn has been proclaimed King Rama X. He will however be able to assume full duties of the sovereign next year when the last rites of King Bhumibol are completed.

Declaration of Prince Vajiralongkorn as Rama X happened smoothly and seamlessly. There were however several hushed murmurs in recent years that the position could be offered to Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, the eldest daughter of King Bhumibol and Queen Sirikit on account of the wild and scandalous behaviour and lifestyle of Prince Vajiralongkorn. It was felt by a significant segment of society that it would augur well for stability, peace and prosperity of the country if the reign was entrusted to the highly erudite, cultured, well-loved and respected Princess Maha Chakri. Because of the very strict lèse majesté laws in the country, this issue has never been discussed openly in the public or the media although many Thai people in private strongly express their distaste at ascension of Prince Vajiralongkorn to the throne. This discussion and support for change has got somewhat muted as Prince Vajiralongkorn started mellowing in recent years and spending more time away from the public gaze at his home in Germany.

Vajiralongkorn was appointed heir to the throne in 1972, but has failed to gain the same popularity as his father. In 1974, the Thai constitution was amended to allow for a female to succeed the throne. But this would kick in only if there was no male heir.

Queen Sirikit has always stood steadfast behind her son in preference to her daughter. Prime Minister Thaksin Shinwatra (2001-2006) was seen to be bankrolling Prince Vajiralongkorn's expensive tastes and habits which made him deeply unpopular with the Royal Palace. This partly contributed to his ouster in a military coup when he was out of the country attending the UN General Assembly Session in September, 2006.

All that is now a thing of the past. Prince Vajiralongkorn is now King Rama X. The actual coronation will take place after a year when cremation ceremonies of King Bhumibol are completed.

India connection

Keeping in view the ancient and historical, cultural and civilisational relations between India and Thailand, Prime Minister Modi took the decision to stop at Bangkok en-route to Japan on 10th Nov, 2016 to pay respects to the memory of the late revered King.

The late king's Title of Rama IX and his name Bhumibol (Bhumi+Bal - Strengrth of the Land) and Adulyadej (Atulya+Tej - Incomparable Glory) are strong testimony to the close and vibrant ties between India and Thailand. It would hence come as a matter of some surprise that in all these 70 years of his reign, King Bhumibol did not even once visit India. After his coronation, King Bhumibol and Queen Sirikit visited a number of countries including USA, several countries in Europe and many neighbouring countries in South-East Asia from 1959 to 1967. During this period the royal couple visited Pakistan in 1962 (as well as Iran in 1967) but did not come to India. The only reason for this can be that Pakistan (and Iran) and Thailand were part of the western bloc - CENTO and SEATO - during the cold war years and India was seen to be a part of the adversarial Soviet bloc. From 1967 onwards, King Bhumibol did not visit any country for the next 28 years, till his visit to Lao in 1994 to inaugurate the Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge. That was his last visit abroad.

Queen Sirikit paid a 16 day visit to China in 2000 as the representative of King Bhumibol to mark 25 years of establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries. All arrangements for her visit to India at the beginning of 2002 were in place but were cancelled at the last minute on account of emerging uncertain security situation due to attacks on the World Trade Centre buildings in New York in Sept, 2001 and subsequent attack by Pakistan terrorists on the Indian Parliament in Dec, 2001. As a result, army in India was mobilised, the country was put on high alert and security situation became volatile and unpredictable. Consequently, Thailand decided to defer Quen Sirikit's visit. The then-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra travelled for a day to New Delhi on 1st Feb, 2002 to convey apologies on behalf of the Queen and of Thai government for postponement of the visit. There were wild allegations against Thaksin by his opponents in the country particularly from the rival Democratic Party that he had travelled to India to seal some deals relating to his private business. They charged that he had no need to make a dash to India for a few hours when he had just paid a State visit to India on 26-29 November, 2001. Thaksin did not respond to these baseless allegations, nor did the Indian Embassy in Bangkok or Thai Embassy in New Delhi. Subject of visit by Queen Sirikit to India was subsequently not revived. The Queen later undertook a visit to Russia in 2007 at the invitation of President Putin.

Notwithstanding the fact that the King and Queen have not visited India, all children of the Royal couple including Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, Princesses Maha Chakri Sirindhorn and Chulabhorn have visited India several times for cultural or religious events and also to participate in State functions. Most recently, Princess Maha Chakri visited India on 21st Nov, 2016 to receive the first International Sanskrit Prize instituted by the Government of India. At the political level also there have been active and vibrant exchanges with frequent two-way travels of Prime Ministers and Ministers of the two countries. Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra was Chief Guest at India's Republic Day celebrations in Jan, 2012.

With the ascension of Maha Vajiralongkorn as the monarch, it is possible that a modus operandi might be devised for the return of Thaksin Shinawatra to the country in the coming months.

India should pro-actively reach out to the Royal Court in Bangkok so that an early visit by King Maha Vajiralongkorn to India can be organised at a mutually convenient time to ensure that economic and strategic relations continue to expand rapidly in the coming years.

The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.


Ashok Sajjanhar

Ashok Sajjanhar

Amb. Ashok Sajjanhar has worked for the Indian Foreign Service for over three decades. He was the ambassador of India to Kazakhstan Sweden and Latvia ...

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