The current king of Thailand, Bhumibol Adulyadej, is the longest-reigning monarch in the world today, as well as Thailand's longest-reigning king ever. The beloved king's common name is pronounced "POO-mee-pohn uh-DOON-ja-deht"; his throne name is Rama IX.
Born a second son, and with his birth taking place outside of Thailand, Bhumibol Adulyadej was never meant to rule. His reign came about through a mysterious act of violence. Since then, the King has been a calm presence at the center of Thailand's stormy political life.
On December 5, 1927, a Thai princess gave birth to a son named Bhumibol Adulyadej ("Strength of the Land, Incomparable Power") in a Cambridge, Massachusetts hospital. The family was in the United States because the child's father, Prince Mahidol, was studying for a Public Health certificate at Harvard University. His mother studied nursing at Simmons College. The boy was the second son for Prince Mahidol and Princess Srinagarindra.
When Bhumibol was a year old, his family returned to Thailand, where his father took up an intership in a hospital in Chiang Mai. Prince Mahidol was in poor health, though, and died of kidney and liver failure in September of 1929.
Schooling in Switzerland:
In 1932, a coalition of military officers and civil servants staged a coup against King Rama VII. The "Revolution of 1932" ended the Chakri Dynasty's absolute rule and created a constitutional monarchy. Concerned for their safety, Princess Srinagarindra took her two young sons and little daughter to Switzerland the following year. The children were placed into Swiss schools.
In March of 1935, King Rama VII abdicated in favor of his 9-year-old nephew, Bhumibol's older brother Ananda Mahidol. The child king and his siblings remained in Switzerland, however, and two regents ruled the kingdom in his name. Ananda Mahidol returned to Thailand in 1938, but Bhumibol remained in Europe. The younger brother continued his studies in Switzerland until 1945, when he left the University of Lausanne at the end of World War II.
On June 9, 1946, King Ananda Mahidol died in his palace bedroom of a single gunshot wound to the head. It was never conclusively proven whether his death was murder, accident or suicide, although two royal pages and the king's personal secretary were convicted and executed for assassinating him.
18-year-old Prince Bhumibol had gone in to his brother's room about 20 minutes before the gun went off, so conspiracy theorists have long implicated him in Ananda Mahidol's death. Bhumibol's uncle was appointed his Prince Regent, and the new king returned to the University of Lausanne to finish his degree. In deference to his new role, he changed his major from science to political science and law.
Accident and Marriage:
Just as his father had done in Massachusetts, Bhumibol met his wife-to-be while studying overseas. The young king often went to Paris, where he met the daughter of Thailand's ambassador to France, a student named Mom Rajawongse Sirikit Kiriyakara. Bhumibol and Sirikit began a demure courtship based on taking in Paris' tourist sights.
In October of 1948, Bhumibol rear-ended a truck and was seriously injured. He lost his right eye and suffered a painful back injury. Sirikit spent a lot of time nursing and entertaining the injured king; his mother urged the young woman to transfer to a school in Lausanne so that she could continue her studies while getting to know Bhumibol better.
On April 28, 1950, King Bhumibol and Sirikit got married in Bangkok. She was 17 years old; he was 22. The King was officially coronated one week later.
Military Coups and Dictatorships:
The newly coronated king had very little actual power. Thailand was ruled by military dictator Plaek Pibulsonggram until 1957, when the first of a long series of coups removed him from office. Bhumibol declared martial law during the crisis, which ended with a new dictatorship forming under the king's close ally Sarit Dhanarajata.
Over the next six years, Bhumibol would revive many abandoned Chakri traditions. He also made many public appearances around Thailand, significantly reviving the prestige of the throne.
Sarit died in 1963, and was succeeded by Field Marshal Thanom Kittikachorn. Ten years later, Thanom sent out the troops against huge public protests, killing hundreds of protestors. Bhumibol opened Chitralada Palace's gates to offer refuge to the demonstrators as they fled the soldiers.
The king then removed Thanom from power and appointed a the first of a series of civilian leaders. In 1976, however, Thanom returned from overseas exile, sparking another round of demonstrations that ended in the October 6 Massacre, in which 46 students were killed and 167 injured at Thammasat University.
In the aftermath of the massacre, Admiral Sa-ngad Chaloryu staged yet another coup and took power. Further coups took place in 1977, 1980, 1981, 1985 and 1991. Although King Bhumibol tried to stay above the fray, he refused to support the 1981 and 1985 coups. His prestige was damaged by the constant unrest, however.
Transition to Democracy:
When a military coup leader was selected as Prime Minister in 1992, huge protests broke out in Thailand's cities. The demonstrations turned into riots, and the police and military were rumored to be dividing into factions. Fearing a civil war, King Bhumibol called the coup leader and the opposition leader to an audience at the palace.
Bhumibol was able to pressure the coup leader into resigning; new elections were called, and a civilian government was elected. This intervention by the king was the beginning of an era of civilian-led democracy that has continued with just one interruption to this day. Bhumibol's image as an advocate for the people, reluctantly intervening in the political fray to protect his subjects, was cemented by this success.
Lese Majeste and Royal Prerogatives:
Although Thailand is a constitutional monarchy, Bhumibol retains more powers than other heads of state such as Great Britain's Queen Elizabeth II. He can veto laws passed by parliament, pardon convicted criminals, and approve or disapprove cabinet members. Bhumibol also has significant leeway in allocating money to his own pet development projects within the country.
From outside of Thailand, King Bhumibol looks very much like other modern kings - quiet, dignified, with plenty of hobbies to fill his free time. However, to the Thai people he is quasi-divine, the Buddhist "Dharmaraja" and an avatar of the Hindu god Vishnu. As such, he is protected by strict laws of lese majeste.
Most Thai citizens genuinely love and revere their king. However, anyone who feels otherwise, and criticizes Bhumibol or any other member of the royal family (living or dead), faces as much as fifteen years in prison. Bhumibol himself has invited criticism in a 2005 speech, but nobody can publicly support his position and advocate repeal of the lese majeste laws without breaking them!
In April of 2006, Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and his party were accused of lese majeste, including plans to depose King Bhumibol. The accusers produced no evidence at all, but this incident helped fuel an on-going political crisis.
On September 19, 2006, the military overthrew Thaksin's government and declared martial law. King Bhumibol endorsed this coup, and Thaksin was forced into exile. As of this writing, Thaksin's younger sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, is the Prime Minister.
King Bhumibol's 60th Anniversary:
In June of 2006, King Bhumibol and Queen Sirikit celebrated the 60th Anniversary of their rule, also known as the Diamond Jubilee. UN Secretary General Kofi Annan presented the king with a Human Development Lifetime Achievement Award as part of the festivities. In addition, there were banquets, fireworks, royal barge processions, concerts and official royal pardons for 25,000 convicts.
The joyous celebration of Bhumibol's 60-year reign brought to the fore worrisome questions of his succession. The octogenarian king has spent much of the past two years in the hospital, suffering from back problems, Parkinson's disease and depression.
Bhumibol and Sirikit's son, Prince Bajiralongkorn (born 1952), is the heir apparent, but he is not nearly as popular as his parents. Prince Bajiralongkorn is rumored to have a gambling problem and a very active private life, in addition to be "erratic."
The prince's sister, Princess Sirindhorn, is more popular than her brother, and the Thai Constitution allows princesses to be appointed successor if there is no male heir apparent. Most constitutional scholars believe that King Bhumibol could appoint his daughter as his successor if he chose, but he has not made any indication that he will do so.
King Bhumibol's Life and Legacy
Although he was never intended for the throne, Bhumibol Adulyadej has been a successful and increasingly beloved king of Thailand over the many decades of his reign. Superficially his life seems similar to other monarchs, such as Japan's Emperor Akihito; both are semi-divine, have a life-long interest in science, enjoy art and music, etc. However, unlike the current Emperor of Japan, Bhumibol plays a significant if shadowy role in the politics of his realm.
The ninth Chakri king of Thailand has guided his country through very turbulent political waters. In fact, he has already earned the title "The Great." How the nation will fare after he passes away is anybody's guess.