Thailand Monarchy

The Modern Monarchy

The institution of monarchy in Thailand is in many ways unique, often difficult for outsiders to fully comprehend. Not only does it have a history going back more than seven hundred years, but it also continues to function with extraordinary relevance and vitality in the contemporary world. Indeed, 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 in the sense of providing a unifying element for the country, a focal point that brings together people from all backgrounds and shades of political thought and gives them an intense awareness of being Thai. This was clearly shown by the unprecedented outpouring of public pride and personal affection that greeted the occasion in 1988 of His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej's becoming the longest-reigning monarch in thai history and is also apparent in countless other ways, large and small.

The intensity of respect felt by Thai people for their King stems in large part from the distinctive form the modern monarchy has taken under his own leadership, one that involves a remarkable degree of personal contact. At the same time, it is rooted in attitudes that can be traced to the earliest days of Thailand as a nation and in some of the past rulers who continue to serve as models of kingship .

Background to a Modern Kingship

Thai concepts of monarchy have their origins in Sukhothai, founded in the early part of the 13th century and generally regarded as the first truly independent Thai capital. Here, particularly under the reign of King Ramkhamhaeng the Great (1275-1317), was born the ideal of a paternalistic ruler alert to the needs of his people and aware of the fact that his duty was to guide them, a view markedly different from the divine kingship practiced by the Khmers.

This paternalistic ideal was at times lost during the long Ayutthaya period, when Khmer influence regarding kingship reappeared and the monarch became a lofty, inaccessible figure, rarely seen by most citizens. Nevertheless, the four-century era witnessed the reigns of some remarkable rulers, whose achievements were far-reaching.

With the founding of the Chakri Dynasty, in 1782, and the establishment of Bangkok as the capital, kingship was based primarily on adherence to the Buddhist concept of virtue. The Bangkok period produced a succession of unusually able rulers, capable of meeting a variety of challenges both to the country and to the monarchy itself.

Though it had lasted longer than most others in the world, largely due to wise rule by Chakri kings, the country's absolute monarchy finally came to an end on June 24, 1932, when a small group of civil servants and military officers staged a bloodless coup and demanded a constitution. King Prajadhipok (King Rama VII), who in any case was already thinking along such lines himself and had already drafted a constitution which had been debated in the Supreme Council of State, agreed and thus became the first constitutional monarch. Three years later, unhappy with some of the results, he decided to abdicate; his nephew Prince Ananda Mahidol, then a 10-year-old student in Switzerland, was chosen to follow him as eighth in the Chakri line.

King Bhumibol Adulyadej

The man who has reigned longer than any previous Thai monarch and has earned such remarkable devotion from his subjects seemed far from the throne at the time of his birth in 1927 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. King Prajadhipok still ruled at the time, and any children he might have would be first in succession. There was, also his father, Prince Mahidol of Songkhla, then studying medicine at Harvard University, as well as his older brother Prince Ananda Mahidol. The future King Bhumibol Adulyadej appeared likely to spend a more or less ordinary life, no doubt influenced by his father's strong determination to use his education and social position to improve public welfare, but doing so in relative obscurity.

Fate, however, determined otherwise. Prince Mahidol died in 1929, and the abdication of King Prajadhipok followed in 1935. For the first 11 years of his rule, the young King Ananda Mahidol remained mostly in Switzerland with his mother, sister, and younger brother, pursuing his studies while effectively cut off from his homeland by the World War. In 1946 he died in the Grand Palace while on a visit, and Prince Bhumibol Adulyadej, then 19 years old, suddenly found himself the ninth Chakri King. He subsequently returned to Luzern to complete his education, changing from science to political science and law in recognition of his new role.

Two years later, while on a visit to Fontainebleau, he met the beautiful young Mom Rajawongse Sirikit Kitiyakara, daughter of the Thai ambassador to France, HRH Prince Nakkhatrmongkol Kitiyakara, Krommamun Chandapuri Suranath, and in 1948 their engagement was announced by the Government.

They were married in Bangkok on April 28, 1950, and seven days later His Majesty was crowned in ancient ceremonies held at the splendid Grand Palace from which his ancestors had ruled the kingdom. He himself, characteristically, has chosen to take as his official Bangkok residence the more modest Chitralada Villa, while steadfastly adhering to the momentous Oath of Succession to the Throne pledged during the coronation: "We will reign with righteousness for thebenefir and happiness of the Siamese people."

As a man, King Bhumibol Adulyadej has displayed a remarkable range of talents. He is a gifted musician and composer, particularly in the field of jazz; one of his songs was featured in a Broadway musical in the early 1950's and his skills have been acknowledged by such masters as Benny Goodman and Lionel Hampton. He was an enthusiastic sailor in the early years of his rule and won the Southeast Asia Peninsula Games gold medal in 1967. In addition, he can point to impressive achievements in the fields of painting, photography, and engineering. Thanks to his international education and upbringing, he is fluent in three european languages and at ease in a variety of cultures. Undoubtedly, though, posterity will remember him most for his accomplishments as leader of the Thai nation during a critical period in its history.

Traditional Royal Duties

King Bhumibol Adulyadej presides over a large number of ritual functions, many of them deeply rooted in Thai tradition. He bestows decorations on worthy people who have performed distinguished services for the nation, sprinkles lustral water on honored dignitaries during birthday and wedding celebrations, attends important cremation ceremonies, and casts new Buddha images at various monasteries throughout the country.

Keenly aware of the importance of education and of the value of youth to the future of Thailand, he began attending graduation ceremonies early in his reign, personally handing out degrees to the graduates of every Thai university as well as to those of military academies. The recent growth in the number of such institutions has made it necessary to delegate this responsibility to other members of the Royal Family in some cases but His Majesty still presides over the ceremonies at older ones like Chulalongkorn and cThammasat Universities, even though they now extend over several days.

The Royal Ploughing Ceremony, a ritual marking the official start of the rice planting season that originated in Ayutthaya, was revived at His Majesty's suggestion in 1960 and is now held annually at San am Luang across from the Grand Palace. Prediction of the forthcoming rice, which is of considerable symbolic importance to the nation's farmers.

All new ambassadors present their credentials to His Majesty and he grants audiences to foreign heads of state, diplomats, and officials of the Thai Government, including the Prime Minister. In addition, as Head of State he convenes Parliament at the beginning of each new session and every draft law is submitted to him for his signature before promulgation. As Head of the Armed Forces, he presides each December over the Trooping of the Colors, an impressive ceremony during which the elite Royal Guards pledge their allegiance to him.

A devout Buddhist, King Bhumibol Adulyadej entered the monkhood for two weeks in 1956, as most Thai men are expected to do at some point in their lives. Throughout the year he participates in numerous merit-making ceremonies at various temples and personally visits many of Thailand's most venerated monks.

To coordinate his active schedule, His Majesty relies on a royal bureaucracy staffed by a special category of civil servants classified as belonging to the Court and based at both the Grand Palace and Chitralada Villa, Divided into the Office of His Majesty's Principal Private Secretary and the Bureau of the Royal Household, this bureaucracy compiles the royal appointments calendar, arranges ceremonial functions, manages royal finances, supervises royal housekeeping and performs a wide range of administrative duties; many members of the staff travel regularly with the Royal Family on provincial tours.

The King personally appoints his Privy Council, a body composed of distinguished advisers noted for their exceptional experience and knowledge of state affairs. The Privy Council reviews all draft laws and makes germane recommendations to His Majesty. In addition, it meets twice weekly to consider unusual or complex issues, such as an appeal for royal clemency or a request without precedent, before forwarding recommendations for His Majesty's attention.

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