King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand: The monarch whose silence is deafening

No living leader has sat on a throne as long as he has. But frail in hospital, and conspicuous by his absence during his country's crisis, is there still time for the King of Righteousness to heal the wounds of a fragile, Buddhist society?

As the rattle of gunfire dies away, the blood is hosed from the city streets and Thailand sits down to ponder the cost of its ferocious uprising, many are quietly wondering if the monarchy of King Bhumibol Adulyadej will be one of the casualties.

He is the world's longest-reigning monarch and in many ways one of the most extraordinary. He began life as a thoroughly modern royal: born in the United States in 1927, educated at a francophone school in Switzerland and the University of Lausanne, where his science studies were cut short by the family's decision to return home at the end of the Second World War.

And like another science-loving Asian monarch, Emperor Hirohito of Japan, he found himself thrust into a fantastically archaic role – or rather a dual role, with an apparently modern face directed to the outside world and an ancient, sacred identity fashioned to give him spiritual authority over his people.

For the heads of state and diplomats who crossed his threshold, he was a king in a suit, a Thai version of British or Scandinavian monarchs: a constitutional figure, a symbol of the state without personal power. For his people, by contrast, the great majority of them pious Theravada Buddhists in a country which also has an ancient residue of Hinduism, he was very much more than that: he was the avatar of the Hindu god Vishnu, and in Buddhist terms the "Dharmaraja", the King of Righteousness. He was "a sacral leader", in the words of his biographer, Paul Handley, "with blood-born magical powers and transcendent vision".

For the outside world he did service as an urbane figurehead. And at home his gentle, studious nature persuaded his people that he had the virtuous character that is a necessary complement of the gifts of blood. He entered the monkhood for a token 15 days in 1956 on the death of his grandmother; he consulted numerologists and patronised magic-practising monks and performed all the ceremonies required of a Dharmaraja.

He did everything to convey that he was indeed "the Strength of the Land" (the meaning of his name) and possessed the numinous power to hold his nation together. This was not in fact continuity, but a studied revival of practices that lapsed with the end of the absolute monarchy in 1932. "The God-like status of Bhumibol," wrote political scientist Michael Connors, "was not part of the family treasure, but something he and hundreds of officials in the palace and other agencies have contrived to create." An important aspect of this myth-making was to insist that Bhumibol was serenely removed from the squalor of everyday politics. Speaking of his accession to the throne, he said in 1974, "I was 18, and very suddenly I learned that politics is a filthy business." It was crucial to the success of his image that, in Handley's words, he was "never seen to play politics... An uncrossable chasm was created between the virtuous throne and virtueless politicians".

But like the Japanese attempts to portray Emperor Hirohito as a man above the politics that led to war, the idea that Bhumibol was above the fray was a carefully manufactured lie. He was already wealthy when he came to the throne; according to Forbes magazine in 2008 he was the richest royal in the world, with an estimated wealth of $35bn. In addition to huge land holdings, including nearly 4,000 acres in Bangkok, his Crown Property Bureau is the majority shareholder of Siam Cement, the biggest conglomerate in the country, and has ruthlessly redeveloped historic parts of the capital for profit. His closest allies are in the business world and the military. Over the years, behind the carefully maintained façade of piety and political neutrality, a monarchical elite of great power and wealth dug itself in.

The lie was exposed by the emergence of Thaksin Shinawatra, the policeman turned telecoms billionaire who set up a political party, Thai Rak Thai (Thai loves Thai) in 1997, in the wake of the Asian financial crisis. Since the mid-1950s, King Bhumibol has claimed to be the friend of Thailand's poor by sponsoring rural development projects including a bridge, a dam and irrigation projects and by carrying out a token land reform project on royal land.

But as Bangkok boomed through the 1970s and 80s, much of the countryside was left behind. In his bid for power, Thaksin vowed to help poor farmers by paying off their debts and raising the minimum wage. He came to power in 2001 and was as good as his word; though accused of numerous serious abuses, no one disputes he did a great deal to help the rural poor in the north-east, in the process exposing the royal development efforts as token.

As the friend of the rural poor, he created the fund of intense popular support which led to the creation of the Red Shirts who have been fighting and dying these past days in the streets of the Thai capital. And as the fighting has grown more bitter and desperate, the issue has become far more than the fate of an individual politician. Thailand has become disastrously polarised.

It is precisely in desperate situations like this that the King of Righteousness is expected to make his rare, quasi-magical interventions. Bringing unity to the nation was supposed to be King Bhumibol's duty and his gift: at the moments of greatest turmoil the king would speak or act, the Dharmaraja would emerge from the clouds with his pained, unsmiling face, and calm the waves and quieten the storm.

It happened like that in 1992, after one of Thailand's many coups, when tens of thousands of protesters confronted troops on a Bangkok university campus. Suddenly there he was on television, sitting on a sofa wearing a pale suit; kneeling on the carpet before him were General Suchinda Kraprayoon, the prime ministerial candidate of the coup group, and retired Major-General Chamlong Srimuang, leader of the pro-democracy movement, urging them to bury their differences. The fighting stopped the next day. A general election brought in a civilian government, and an apparent end to the interference of the military in the nation's political life. It was a dramatic demonstration of his Majesty's unifying powers.

Yet this time around, as Thailand faced an equally destructive crisis, the king has been unable to perform any such function. One reason is that he is clearly unwell: in October 2007 he suffered what appeared to be a minor stroke, and was unable to make his traditional birthday speech. He has been poorly ever since, and the latest rumours indicate that he is again in hospital, suffering from exhaustion and a lung infection. But it is not only because he is unwell that the king can no longer act as the great unifier: it is because he has a dog in this fight. The 2006 coup and the emergence of the monarchist yellow shirts blew his "neutral" cover. If he has been as silent as the sphinx through this crisis, it is also because there is nothing that he can say that would be any help.

Whatever happens to the ailing king and his widely disliked successor, Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, Thailand faces a long crisis – one which the monarchy cannot solve. "There might still be people in Thai society that want to see the king play a role in resolving the crisis," said Jon Ungpakom, a former senator and democracy advocate, "but a large section of society realises that we should not depend on the monarchy for resolving crises. If we are to be a democratic system, we must learn to deal with our problems for ourselves." And 63 years under the comfortingly archaic cover of a holy king, during which average incomes have increased 4,000 per cent, have allowed Thailand to neglect this fundamental task.

A life in brief

Born: 5 December 1927, Cambridge, Massachusetts, US.

Family: The younger son of HRH Prince Mahidol Adulyadej and Mom Sangwal. He is married to Mom Rajawongse Sirikit Kitiyakara; they have four children.

Education: Briefly went to Mater Dei school in Bangkok before moving to Switzerland in 1933 and studying at the Ecole Nouvelle de la Suisse Romande in Lausanne. Degree in law and political science at the University of Lausanne.

Career: Ascended the throne following the death of his brother, King Ananda Mahidol, on 9 June 1946. He has made several interventions in politics and is credited with facilitating Thailand's transition to democracy in the 1990s.

He says: "In Thailand's history there have been dissensions from time to time, but in general, unity has prevailed."

They say: "Whenever there is a political crisis people expect the King to solve the problem." Suchit Bunbongkarn, professor of political science at Chulalongkorn University

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