“King” is an uncomfortable word for Americans. We bristle at the thought of being ruled. “Benevolent dictatorship” seems like an oxymoron of the highest order.
A week before we left for Thailand, I got a message from my business partner. “You better check the news. The king has just died.” I stopped in my tracks, staring at my phone. It was the only news that could have made me second-guess our trip.
Thailand has been one of the most stable nations in all of South East Asia throughout the 20th century. Largely escaping the wars, political upheaval and factiousness which ravaged their neighbors, the Thai people have busied themselves over the last century with a steady, if sometimes faltering, march of progress. Ask many Thai and they will tell you that march is thanks to the leading of one man; Bhumibol Adulyadej, also known as Rama IX.
After 70 years on the throne, the man revered with near religious fervor by so many was dead. His reign began in June of 1946 while the world was celebrating the first year of peace in Europe after World War II. Few Thai today were even alive when he took the throne. Fewer still remember their nation without him. Through his life, the King had elevated the monarchy to such a state of reverence that many a conflict could be set aside or solved simply by the implication the throne had become concerned. Like a family always putting aside its differences to spend a peaceful Christmas dinner together, the many religions, ethnic groups and interests of Thailand had always managed to find a way to sort things out for the sake of the King.
Suddenly, no one knew what was going to happen next.
Though many reports in the international media predicted the worst, we kept our tickets and kept an eye on the news. A month of official mourning had been declared. Live music, fireworks, alcohol, large gatherings … any kind of revelry was officially banned. Some in the expat community in Thailand saw this as their queue and left for Malaysia. Our friends on the ground told us soldiers had taken up station at some malls. Police patrols made the rounds at night shutting down bars and restaurants found violating the ban on large gatherings.
We landed in Thailand to find a relatively somber nation. Enormous billboards were everywhere with pictures of the King above long inscriptions we couldn’t translate. Weeks after his death, many people were still wearing black. Nearly everyone had a black ribbon pinned to their shoulder. In the busy night markets, the mass of bustling people would come to a stop as candle memorials were lit and the national anthem blared from loudspeakers. It sent chills down my spine to hear these huge throngs of people singing along. Crowds stretching for blocks would stand silent as the music stopped. People could be seen wiping away tears.
For us it was an honor to be there while the Thai people mourned the passing of their king. Parades were held in his honor. Huge memorial services took place in cities across the country. Many memorials sprang up along the streets on the city. Lines of candles would snake their way along the sidewalks for miles, winding around trees and benches and up the old walls of the city.
We even had the privilege of helping to light one of these enormous public displays of remembrance. Walking to the old city one night, we passed a man beginning to light one of the massive displays. He looked up at us, smiled, and handed us a candle. Motioning for us to use it to light the next candle in turn, he smiled and bowed quickly. Then he left us to our task and moved on down the line to begin further on until someone else came along and he invited them to help as well. By the time we ran out of candles to light in our little section, we stood up to find a street that had been dark minutes ago was now lit as far as the eye could see.
Not all reverence is genuine, especially for monarchs. There were, and still are, many private grievances against the King and the royal family. Intensely draconian, even brutal lèse majesté laws protect the name and interests of the Thai royal house. Speaking ill of the King, even in a Facebook post, can result in decades in jail. The accusation is so potent that it can even be leveraged to destroy people for personal or business reasons. As repeating the alleged offense could put you at risk of uttering the blasphemous words, many times the initial infraction goes unrecorded in court documents. Abuse of such laws takes the natural and expected path.
The reign of the king was not without severe tests. Many times the Thai military stepped in when normal democratic processes had reached a fever pitch, or boiled over into violence and protests. Many at home and abroad have cast a skeptical eye on the repeated coups that toppled and replaced governments, all under the King’s tacit approval.
Whether Rama IX was a benevolent sovereign, or whether he was kept on the throne by an unpredictable junta and draconian laws is not an easy question to answer. Perhaps neither answer is really true. Perhaps both are in their own way. What is undeniable is the King reigned over a time of peace and prosperity unmatched by any other nation in the region in modern times. The emotion and reverence on the faces of the Thai people certainly suggests the darker readings of the King’s intentions and actions are wide of the mark.
The American understanding of liberty and personal sovereignty has no room for the devotion and the deference that existed for the King of Thailand. Looking from the outside, one could choose to see conditions there as thinly-veiled despotism. Or you could see the protection from fear, terror and instability provided by the monarchy as freedom in which to enjoy and build and achieve. After our five short weeks in Thailand, we came down on the side of the favorable view.
Thailand has been a country ruled by an unassailable, all powerful King. Their government violates some basic principles of what we in the west think of as democratic governance. Despite this it is without irony, and with fierce pride, that the Thai people would tell us the name of their country in Thai means “Free Land.”