The Great Oz: King of Thailand

By a reader

You see his image towering everywhere: King Bhumibol Adulyadej, Rama IX, of Thailand. His stern visage gazes across the cities, villages and countryside of the nation, seemingly everywhere, yet still a mystery — who is the man, not the king, that scowls at us from billboards, magazines, websites and portraits in living rooms throughout the land?

Thais afford him in such great veneration that I long assumed he must be a great and kind leader, the weight of his burden borne quietly, his acts — like a massive granite ballast — anchoring the murky, bewitching culture of such languid beauty and at times startling cruelty.

What, I often wondered, does he really think?

Today, almost 20 years after I first arrived in Thailand, I still have no idea what goes on in the mind of Bhumibol, of course — only a very few on the entire planet do.

But the mystery, I now know, is intentional, just as it was for the Great Oz.

If we were to pull back the curtain and peer inside, would we find as Dorothy and Toto did, an illusionist yearning to step out from behind the smoke and mirrors?

Because Bhumibol is unknowable, we can only attempt to penetrate the sparkling skein that surrounds him by catching glimpses of his reflected character.

A few facts are certain — information in the world press before Bhumibol was swallowed up and wrapped in the raiment of the semi-divine — and some from more recent ground-breaking work:

  • He was born in the US — the only king to date born there — and raised in Switzerland.
  • He was something of a teen-aged bon vivant in Europe, playing the saxaphone and driving sports cars.
  • He was one of the few people present in the inner sanctum of the royal palace when his brother, Ananda Mahidol, King Rama XIII, was shot in the forehead and killed. Bhumibol’s involvement in the death — murder, suicide or accident? — has never been ruled out by unbiased historians.
  • One of his mentors was his uncle Prince Rangsit, who was determined that the monarchy should reclaim the powers it lost in the “revolution” of 1932 and WWII years.
  • Judging from subsequent events, his favorite among Thai leaders seems to have been Field Marshall Sarit, a strongman whose funeral was given royal patronage — a lying in state for 100 days and attendance of the king and queen at his cremation. But before he died of alcoholism at age 50 in 1963, Sairit had amassed 100 “wives” and $140 million (again in 1963 terms). It was in Sarit’s time that the king began have the mystical aura that was to become so familiar to later generations.
  • His son, Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, is widely disliked and even feared in Thailand due to his scandalous and reckless life. But he remains Bhumibol’s designated heir despite his lifestyle and serious questions about his innate intelligence.
  • Recent information has revealed that Bhumibol and his wife, Queen Sirikit, have been estranged for 20 years.
  • The king’s mother, a commoner named Mom Sangwal, lived in Switzerland, not Thailand, almost all her long life. She was also present in the royal palace when her oldest son was killed by a gunshot wound.
  • In 2008 Fortune magazine said Bhumibol was worth $35 billion, more than the Sultan of Brunei and the Saudi King, making him the richest royal in the world.

Even these facts are difficult to prise loose and will land you in prison in Thailand for repeating. The country’s lese majeste writ is among the most repressive and draconian laws on the books of any so-called democracy on the planet.

Perhaps another way to glimpse Bhumibol amid the blinding glare of the great royalist machine is to look at the state of “his” country today:

  • Despite vast spending in Thailand the by the US during the Vietnam War – a time when all neighboring countries except Malaysia were wracked by civil war or closed to the outside world –Thailand squandered the advantage. As the powerful jockeyed to divide up the spoils, the poor remained just that.
  • After more than 60 years with Bhumibol as king, every aspect of Thai society is profoundly corrupt including the police, the educational and medical systems, and of course the politicians and powerful godfathers. Certainly he did not start the practice, but one would hope a benevolent “father” of the nation would have helped stop it. He’s had plenty of time to do so. But he didn’t neglect is own household, now so vastly wealthy.
  • The social safety net for many families is a daughter, or daughters, working in prostitution. Or it could be the male children too.
  • One reason for the coup that overthrew the elected government of Thaksin Shinawatra in 2006 appears to be the royal family — in particular Queen Sirikit, an open backer of the “yellow shirt” movement — who seem view Thaksin with great alarm. Is he a gatecrasher unwilling to fully support the Great Oz pretense?
  • Bhumibol’s unceasing efforts to restore royal prestige — in concert with military dictators or in their palm? — could have impeded democracy in Thailand for two generations. His insistence that his son will be the next king – despite overwhelming evidence he is entirely unsuited – threatens to damage the country even after his death.

Notes: Bhumibol is the grandson of Chulalongkorn, Rama V, who had 77 children.

Chulalongkorn’s four formal wives were all his half-sisters — all daughters of his own father Mongut, Rama IV. Bhumibol is descended from Savang Vadhana, one of Rama V’s half-sister wives.

His wife Queen Sirikit’s grandfather is also Rama V, whose third son was Prince Kitiyakara Voralaksana, her father, by the consort Chao Chom Manda Uam — who was not the king’s half sister.

The bloodline raises serious questions of inbreeding. Perhaps because Bhumibol is descended from a commoner mother he has all the appearances of normality, but his son the crown prince and daughter Princess Chulabhorn exhibit physical traits that raise the specter of deficiencies due to inbreeding.


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