People would approach him on their hands and knees, so revered was Thailand’s king, who has died after ruling over the nation for 70 years.
People weep after an announcement that Thailand’s King Bhumibol Adulyadej has died, at the Siriraj hospital in Bangkok, Thailand, 13 October 2016. (REUTERS/Chaiwat Subprasom)
“Guests approach the king on their hands and knees”
– Deborah Charles
It’s hard to explain the importance of the Thai king to people outside of Thailand. But pictures of the king are everywhere in Thailand, and Thais revered his presence.
Before any movie in a cinema, everyone in the theater has to stand. Then you hear the familiar strains of the king’s song as a succession of photographs depicting the king throughout his long life appear on the big screen.
While I was living in Bangkok, one time authorities blocked me from walking across a pedestrian overpass that crossed a main street. Why? The king was about to be driven on this street, and according to Thai custom, the king must always be seated higher than anyone else.
Guests at the Thai Royal Palace were traditionally required to approach the king on their hands and knees so that the king was always above them.
“Bhumibol provided an element of stability.”
– John Rogers
With Thai military and U.S. support, Bhumibol succeeded in keeping his country a functioning constitutional monarchy through the turbulent 1960s and 1970s through to his death.
In so doing, he defied the “domino theory,” which predicted that nations would succumb to Communist rule one by one as their neighbors did.
Thailand’s neighbors to the north and east – Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam – all went Communist. But not Thailand.
As an arm’s-length monarch, Bhumibol provided an element of stability, while a succession of elected or military governments governed one of Southeast Asia’s most important countries.
The politics was often chaotic and sometimes violent, but Thailand survived without revolution. This was, in part at least, down to the monarchy and their king, who was visibly and genuinely revered by his people, in the big cities and the countryside.
His son and successor, Vajiralongkorn, enjoys none of his father’s popularity or esteem.
Deborah Charles was a Reuters correspondent for 24 years. She worked on four continents on issues ranging from the White House to Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi and was the White House correspondent during the Clinton and George W. Bush presidencies. She covered four U.S. presidential campaigns and six Olympics, worked in bureaus in Madrid, Bangkok, Montreal, Toronto, New York and Buenos Aires and covered fighting in Kosovo and NATO bombing of Belgrade.
John Rogers worked for more than 35 years as a Reuters correspondent, bureau chief or editor, with postings in India, Algeria, Thailand, Iran, Canada, Egypt and Vietnam, and stints as London-based diplomatic correspondent and senior desk editor in London and Washington. His biggest story was the 1978-79 revolution in Iran. In retirement, he taught an undergraduate course on International News at City University, London, from 2004 to 2012.
This account captures the reverence with which the Thai people held their king, a notion difficult for most citizens of the United States to grasp. In late 1999, when the U.S. was still roiling from the Clinton impeachment hearings, the King celebrated his 72nd birthday. At 8 p.m. every street in Thailand was filled with citizens, each holding a candle and singing to the King. Watching the joyous crowd, I wondered which nation had the more evolved form of government. Given the reputation of the Crown Prince, it is uncertain whether this national reverence will continue.