On my first cinema visit in Bangkok, I dropped my popcorn. The lights had dimmed and I had settled back when the whole audience stood up quickly and obediently. The King’s anthem had started. Flustered, not knowing that the anthem is played at every performance of every film in the realm, I joined them, and in the process tipped my snack all over my neighbour’s knees.
It was my first week in what ended up being a six-year residency in the Thai capital, and the first of many similar mishaps. A few days later, in the city’s only central park, the national anthem (a different tune from ‘the King’s anthem’) blared out without warning from tinny speakers attached to lampposts. Walkers, joggers and courting couples all halted their activities for the daily 6 p.m. tribute to majesty.
Our own royals can only dream of such reflex loyalty. And in modern Britain of course, even standing up for the national anthem would be met with utter derision by teenagers and their parents. But Thai subjects seem to enjoy any opportunity to demonstrate their allegiance to King Bhumibol. If there are any republicans, they do a good job of disguising themselves. Which is why the fact that the King seems to support the coup in Thailand is crucial to its success — King Bhumibol’s wish is his people’s command.
King Bhumibol came to the throne in 1946, after the unexplained shooting of his brother, King Ananda Mahidol. He was only 18. After growing up mostly in Switzerland he had no preparation. He promised to ‘reign with righteousness for the benefit and happiness of the Siamese people’ and has fulfilled his pledge. His royal projects in the north have provided substitute crops for farmers previously growing opium poppies. With his encouragement the unsustainable logging of hardwood trees was brought to an end. His speeches have emphasised learning, harmony and tolerance. His people’s response, especially in rural areas, would make our own royals blush. Thai villagers not only literally prostrate themselves in his presence but lay down handkerchiefs for him to walk on and then preserve the cloth with his footprint at home. He is pictured in a variety of guises in homes and businesses up and down the country. ~Alex Spillius, The Spectator
It is also worth recalling that it was King Bhumibol who made it possible for a peaceful transition back to democracy after the last coup in 1992, and who seems to be the only person capable, as Franz-Josef II once said about his own role in the Habsburg Empire, of protecting his people from its government. When monarchists tell you that monarchy is generally more just and well-ordered a type of regime than others, it is this sort of monarch that they have in mind. Monarchy is not suited to all places and all peoples, just as democracy is not, but King Bhumibol gives us a glimpse of what a good monarchy might look like.