The institution of the monarchy in the Kingdom of Thailand is in many ways unique. Not only does it have a history going back more than 700 years, but it also continues to function with extraordinary relevance and vitality in the contemporary world. Although the revolution of 1932 brought an end to monarchy in its absolute form, the institution today can be said to be more powerful than ever.
Thailand is a constitutional monarchy, which means that ruling monarchs exercise their legislative powers through a National Assembly. This assembly comprises a House of Representatives elected by the people of Thailand and a semi-elected Senate proposed by the Prime Minister and appointed by the King. The current Chakri Dynasty dates back to the founding of present day Bangkok as the capital at the end of the 18th century, and has included nine kings. But much of modern Thailand’s history has been dominated by one king who’s 60-year reign, celebrated in 2006, is presently the world’s longest.
King Bhumibol Adulyadej, or Rama IX, was born in Massachusetts on December 5th 1927 (the only King to have ever been born in the US). He was an outside contender for the throne but a succession crisis resulted from his uncle’s abdication after the 1932 coup. With his father’s death when Bhumibol was just one, he and his brother were raised in Switzerland and brought home after the Second World War so that Ananda – the king’s older brother – could ascend to the empty throne. But 18-year-old Ananda was soon assassinated under unsolved circumstances and young Bhumibol became Rama IX.
He returned to Switzerland to finish his studies, where he met his wife, Sirikit, the daughter of a diplomat. Upon returning to Thailand they were promptly married before his official coronation and produced four children, who are now grown adults and perform royal duties in the footsteps of their parents. Prince Vajiralongkorn is the Crown Prince and only son, and now performs many of the official duties in the stead of his aging father.
Rama IX is loved and highly respected by all his faithful people. He is an important focal point that brings together groups from all backgrounds and gives them an intense awareness of being Thai. This sense of belonging was clearly evident by the unprecedented outpouring of public pride and personal affection in 2006 that celebrated the occasion of his 60 years on the throne, making him the longest-reigning monarch in the world.
The love the Thai people have for their king is also apparent in countless other ways, large and small, most notably the ubiquitous yellow shirts that many Thais wear on Mondays to commemorate his birth date and colour. It’s a show of national pride and allegiance in the face of disunified politics.
In villages, towns and cities throughout Thailand you will notice signs, posters and large billboards of photographs of King Bhumibol Aduluadej, his wife Her Royal Highness the Queen and their children. No home decoration is complete without some image of the King hanging in prominent position on the wall. These images are a constant reminder of the reverence and love that Thai people have for the Kingdom of Thailand monarchy and the role that Rama IX plays as the number one figure head in his Land of Smiles.
And there is a reason for this, near unhealthy, obsession. Throughout his 60-year reign, Rama IX, has invested endless personal time and money into projects that have outstandingly benefited his loyal subjects, particularly in rural areas alleviating disease, bettering the economy and preserving the natural resources of Thailand. He is also an accomplished artist, photographer and musician and has done much for the promotion of the arts in Thailand.
Second favourite among the Thais is his grandfather, King Chulalongkorn (Rama V), the mustachioed ruler during the second half of the 19th century. Thailand’s second longest reigning monarch is much reverred for his role in modernising Thailand and side-stepping the threat of colonialism from the French and English. Considered ‘good luck for business’, images of him are also widely displayed.
It is imperative that visitors to Thailand have complete respect and reverence for the Kingdom of Thailand monarchy. Yourtube was briefly banned in the country because someone posted supposedly derogatory images of the royal family. Loosely defined lese majesty laws are routinely used in draconian fashion to silence any suggestion of criticism of the King, and most Thais prefer it that way.