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Published: October 14th 2016
I started my car to go to my work on a chilly October morning. It is 13 October, 2016 in Calgary. My car radio crackled and the CBC news announced that King Bhumibol has passed away this morning at the age of 88. I stalled the car. I was stunned for a second. Should I? He was not physically doing well for the last 5 years and it was perhaps expected. Still, I paused for a few moments before driving away; the thought is still in my mind. I was merely a tourist when I first visited Thailand and still I am a foreigner whenever I set my foot in Thailand. If someone asks me “Tell me a couple of things that you love about Thailand”, undoubtedly I will say that it is the people and their love for their King. Yes, my blogs on Thailand can wait a little longer, but I think this would be an appropriate time for me to write something about the King, the way I learnt about him. I have been thinking about it for a long time but never got around to do it. I believe, this would be the perfect moment for me
reminiscing about what I learnt about the King through the eyes of the common people like you and I.
I have never seen the King or the Queen in person, let alone meeting them. But I felt their presence everywhere soon I started my journey in Thailand. To be honest, I didn’t feel their presence so much when I was in Bangkok. The pomp and glitter, the busy traffic and skyscrapers of Bangkok somehow absorbed the tell-tale signs of the Thai people’s eternal romance with the monarchy. But just travel outside Bangkok, you can’t miss the display, be it Kanchanaburi, Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai or the villages of Northern Thailand - everywhere. The commoners really love their King. What amazed me that whoever I talked to in Thailand, no one referred King Bhumibol as “Our King”; everyone referred him as “My King”. They take the matter very personally. This unprecedented and unconditional love to their King tells me that the King was very close to their heart. And this is the difference I find when I see the monarchy in the United Kingdom. The monarchy there is often chased by the paparazzi; the Queen stays disconnected from the people;
the admiration from the commoners (I abstain saying it the ‘love’) generally stops at the boundary of the Buckingham palace. No, not the same way it happens in Thailand. True, I went to visit the Royal Palace and I observed the palace only from a distance. True, I was not fortunate to see the King or the Queen in person. Then what’s the difference? Well, the King took much effort to improve the livelihood of the common people in Thailand and that created the bond. Unlike the Queen of England, the King Bhumibol took active interest in the political process. And that resulted in many projects that served well to Thailand and the commoners. I have seen some projects myself in the villages in Northern Thailand and faraway places like Mae Hong Son. One can see the local produce and the handicrafts from the small scale projects run by the Queen displayed in various stalls at the Suvarnabhumi International Airport. Monarchy in England always lived in a bubble and they preferred that way. King Bhumibol and the Queen traveled to rural areas in Thailand and they mingled with the common people. They tried their best to shape their lives for
a better tomorrow.
I learnt a bit of how to speak Thai before I first went to Thailand. Since I have a habit of straying to the dusty roads wherever I travel and the English language is pretty much dead in those places, I learnt how to speak Thai. There are a few funny stories involving me speaking Thai, but I leave those stories for another day. The long and short of it is my Thai is not fluent; I just get by. But that was enough for me to learn a plenty about the King and the Queen by talking to the common people because that’s where you get the best of the information.
It was November, 2011 when I first went to Thailand. There was a terrible flood in Thailand that year. The roads were flooded and people were canoeing on some streets of Bangkok. I landed in Bangkok just when the floodwater was receding. I could see from the plane the flooded Chao Praya River that gobbled the lower mainland. My train from Bangkok to Chiangmai needed to detour and I had to cancel my plan to visit Ayuthya. I reached Chiang Mai alright and
since it is in the northern highland, there was no flood there. Soon I headed out to the rural areas. I talked to the people and I learnt more about “My King”. Indeed, people have placed the King in their hearts above all.
“Do you know that the King predicted the flood long ago?” one guy told me when I was having a cup of tea with him.
“You must be joking,” I was just startled
“Not at all. He was a great environmentalist. He arranged a team to study the possibility of floods in the future and he asked the government to take the reasonable measures, otherwise the lower mainland would be flooded.” The guy replied.
“Well, government didn’t listen, and you see what happened now.”
The King was not engaged in the active politics, but he influenced the governmental actions within his capacity to shape Thailand’s future. He accepted the throne in 1946 at the age of 18 after his elder brother was shot to death. He accepted monarchy when it was a troubled time for Thailand due to political instability and King Bhumibol didn’t have a choice but try to
stabilize the country using his limited constitutional power. Since then, he has been seen the stabilizing figure in the troubled water of Thai political landscape. Thailand has seen many coups during his reign. True, the King had to establish close relationship with the military rulers from time to time. But he has been generally neutral figure hosing off the fire when needed.
“My King is the man who actually worked for us, not the government,” one guy told me and folded his palms and touched his forehead as a gesture of worshipping him.
“The governments are no good?” I asked.
“Never was, never will be,” he commented.
The King actually started traveling to rural Thailand from the latter part of 1950s, trying to understand the people’s problems and protecting the environment that sustains them. This really bonded him to the local people.
It was getting late and I had to leave the village. Also, I was not interested meddling in the local politics in a country where I was a visitor. I just wanted to understand the people and how the King and the Queen are alive in the people’s hearts. I read reports about
his position during the Red Shirt Movement. Further later, there were reports about his standing on the government of Thaksin Sinwatra. These are all reports in the newspapers and I was not interested. I was interested in the contribution of the monarch in shaping the country’s future. I was curious to know what makes people call the King of a country as “My King” and not “Our King”.
Love creates the human bondage and not the politics. It’s not surprising that the longest-reigning monarch of a country has made a place in the hearts of the common people in Thailand forever. Today, I don’t get surprised when I see photos of the people in Bangkok crying when the news broke out announcing the King’s demise. To Thai people, he was bigger than life. Whether the vacuum will have any impact on the political landscape of the country in the coming days, only the time will tell. Whatever happens, the common people of Thailand will remain bonded to the King through their deep religious belief and they are going to miss their King of Heart more than ever in the coming days. Rest in peace, the Great King Bhumibol!
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