Royalty and revolution: The absolute monarch

Thailand's coup was organised by the army, but it would never have succeeded without the support of a king whose power is unquestioned. Justin Huggler reports on an eccentric ruler
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The Independent Online

Today, most of Thailand will be wearing an identical costume: a bright yellow T-shirt with a collar and an elaborate crest emblazoned on the chest. They do this every Monday: an entire country puts on what has become an unofficial national uniform, completely voluntarily. The lurid costume would not be considered flattering by Western tastes, but it is not a fashion statement. It is a statement of loyalty to Thailand's king.

The T-shirts were given out free earlier this year to mark the 60th anniversary of the accession to the throne of King Bhumibol Adulyadej. He was born on a Monday, and so intense is Thailand's devotion to him that the whole country has now taken to wearing them, without fail, every Monday. Some Thais have gone even further: they have managed to get their hands on several identical T-shirts, so they can wear them every day.

Last week's military coup has thrust King Bhumibol, the world's longest reigning monarch, back into the political spotlight after he endorsed the group of senior generals who have seized power. On Wednesday, the day after the coup, a large crowd of Thais gathered next to the tanks which had taken up position outside government buildings. At first it looked as if they were there to protest, and soldiers were eyeing them warily. But then the royal motorcade came into view, and it became clear why the people were there. They had not come to demonstrate against the sudden overthrow of democracy: they had come to try to catch a glimpse of the King as he drove by.

It was far longer than a British royal motorcade, or that of a US president. To the onlookers' disappointment, the police said the Crown Prince and not the King was inside the old cream-coloured Rolls-Royce which looked somewhat out of place amid the ultra-modern skyscrapers of Bangkok.

It was followed by an extraordinary number of Mercedes and BMWs, all in royal red with a crest on the side, that seemed to be there for no other reason than to swell the procession. The motorcade must have added up to £1m worth of cars. Traffic was stopped by police so it could pass. People stood respectfully to attention in the streets.

It was a glimpse of the power and mystique of King Bhumibol. Even though he is a constitutional monarch, with almost no official powers, the events of the last week have shown that he is still the real power in Thailand.

The televised ceremony in which he endorsed the coup leader, General Sondhi Boonyaratglin, was another insight into his grip on the country. Bhumibol did not even have to turn up. Instead, General Sondhi, in full ceremonial regalia, knelt and prostrated himself before a picture of the King.

No one has suggested this implies the King was not wholeheartedly behind it. That is just the way they do things here.

This is a king who plays jazz saxophone to relax, and used to give concerts to his people. He has played live with the late jazz musician Benny Goodman, who said that if he weren't a king he'd give him a place in his band. Bhumibol holds the patents to several agricultural inventions, and is said to drive himself around Bangkok secretly at night to see how his people live. But at the same time, he commands such devotion that Thais do not dare look him in the eye: they address the dust beneath his feet.

Bhumibol wrote a biography of his favourite pet dog, Thong Daeng, when she died. You can imagine a British royal doing the same - what's harder to imagine is Prince Charles writing the sort of social parable Bhumibol's book was. "Tongdaeng is a respectful dog with proper manners; she is humble and knows protocol," he wrote. "She would always sit lower than the King; even when he pulls her up to embrace her, Tongdaeng would lower herself down on the floor, her ears in a respectful drooping position, as if she would say, 'I don't dare'."

Most Thais say the one thing that made them accept last week's coup was Bhumibol's endorsement. Almost the first thing you see at Bangkok airport is a sign saying "We love our King", and people say the same thing on the streets. Almost all of those we interviewed this week, whether they supported the coup or not, said they backed the King.

On the other hand, of course, it is illegal to say anything else. Thailand is one of very few countries in the world that still enforces lèse-majesté laws. Say anything remotely critical of the King or the royal family, and it could land you a lengthy prison sentence. And there are Thai social activists who can testify from their own bitter experience that those laws are enforced.

When an American journalist, Paul Handley, published an unauthorised biography of Bhumibol, The King Never Smiles, earlier this year, the Thai government banned it and blocked its page on the Yale University Press's website. But then, it also banned an earlier biography by William Stevenson, who was granted hundreds of hours to interview Bhumibol, and who says it was the King who suggested he write the book in the first place. Thai newspapers were told they weren't even to mention Stevenson's book in print.

All the same, there is no doubt that Bhumibol's immense popularity among Thais is genuine. Nobody makes them wear those yellow T-shirts. And there are many Thais, respected university professors among them, who will tell you they would die for their king. So it was no surprise that the generals who seized power last week were so eager to stress that they had the King's backing. They even ordered Thai newspapers to refer to their junta as the "Council for Democratic Reform under the Constitutional Monarchy".

But that is where it gets tricky. Because Bhumibol is widely considered, both in Thailand and internationally, as the man who has safeguarded and overseen the country's transition to democracy. When he came to the throne at the age of 18, the generals who were then running the country told him to keep his mouth shut. He outlasted them and, at several critical moments since, intervened in attempted coups on the side of democracy. Western newspapers have eulogised him for it.

Yet last week he personally endorsed a coup that overturned 15 years of stable democracy, and turned his country - the West's key ally in the region - back into a military dictatorship.

"There are two schools of thought," said one Thai observer who preferred not to be named in view of the strict laws of the country. "One is that the King has backed the coup for sake of stability. The other is that he is a part of this coup. Personally, I tend to the former."

There was no love lost between Bhumibol and the deposed Prime Minister, Thaksin Shinawatra. As one Western observer put it, the coup was "the culmination of months of shadow boxing between the palace and the Prime Minister".

Whatever his true feelings about the coup, Bhumibol has always trod a more subtle path than outright backing for democracy, and preserving the monarchy has always been as much of a priority as democracy. As a younger brother, he never expected to accede to the throne, and inherited it in 1946 under dramatic circumstances that have never been fully explained, when his brother, King Ananda Mahidol, was found dead in his bedroom, with a gunshot wound to the head. Bhumibol was studying in Switzerland at the time, and because of his youth, his uncle was appointed regent.

The young man had not inherited a throne with the immense influence he wields today. The Thai monarchy had been weakened through long years of military dictatorship under Field Marshal Pibulsonggram, and the generals made it clear to the young king who was in charge. "When I opened my mouth, they'd say, 'Your Majesty, you don't know anything'," he has recalled. "So I shut my mouth. I know things, but I shut my mouth." So Bhumibol threw himself into another role, devoting hours to agricultural research and national development, and beginning to build the immense popularity he enjoys today.

In 1957 he got his chance. When a rival general moved against Field Marshal Pibulsonggram, the young King advised the dictator to resign to avoid a coup. Pibulsonggram refused, and his rival seized power, endorsed by Bhumibol. The country was still a military dictatorship, but Bhumibol had made the monarchy count again.

In 1973, he asserted himself dramatically. There had been massive protests and the army had killed many student demonstrators. Bhumibol opened the gates of his palace to the fleeing students and gave them sanctuary. It was a decisive moment that overturned the military dictatorship.

But in 1976, Bhumibol went the other way, as the military seized power again. The army went into the universities and massacred hundreds of students, but Bhumibol sided with the military. Analysts believe he may have done so because of the advance of communism across south-east Asia, which had just wiped out the royal family in Laos.

In 1992, Bhumibol played a decisive role in the country's peaceful transition to democracy. There was considerable violence after the military had been called in to quell popular protests. Neither side would back down and the situation was critical. Bhumibol summoned both the military leader of the time, and the leader of the democracy movement, to his palace. Forcing both to kneel and prostrate themselves before him in a televised audience, he scolded them in front of the nation. It was the end of the crisis, and Thailand became a peaceful democracy - until last week, when Bhumibol appears unexpectedly to have backed the military. As recently as April he refused to intervene in the burgeoning crisis, after opponents of Mr Thaksin boycotted a general election and asked the King to appoint an alternative prime minister.

Now he has intervened, though whether his hand was forced by events is not clear. What the long-term effects will be remain to be seen. Earlier this year, the King of Nepal saw his throne stripped of nearly all its powers after his ill-fated attempt to seize back power for himself. Bhumibol is far more popular on a personal level in Thailand than King Gyanendra was in Nepal, but reverence for the institution of monarchy was similar.

At the age of 78, celebrating his 60th year on the throne, Bhumibol is back in the thick of Thai politics.