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The King, His Son and His Dog

Worries in Thailand Over Royal Succession

December 2, 2004


BANGKOK -- As the widely revered king of Thailand turns another year older, Thais are increasingly worried about how much longer he will be able to play the role of the wise voice of national unity and political propriety.

The soft-spoken and bespectacled King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who celebrates his 77th birthday on Sunday, is the world's longest-reigning monarch. He commands such enormous respect and authority in predominantly Buddhist Thailand that the Hollywood musical "The King and I" -- which had Yul Brynner as King Rama IV, the current king's great-grandfather, singing and dancing with a young English teacher -- is still banned.

In recent years, as King Bhumibol's advanced age and health problems have slowed him, he has handed off more official duties to his son, the twice-divorced Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, whom most Thais view with unease, at best.

At the same time, the king has shown subtle but sure signs of discontent with Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, a telecommunications tycoon whose populist policies have endeared him to the masses but whose autocratic tendencies have raised concern among reformers and investors.

"There are all the reasons to believe a possible competition could develop ... a symbolic competition, between the prime minister and the king," said Maurizio Peleggi, a historian at the National University of Singapore and author of a book on the Thai monarchy.

The king's immense popularity far outstrips that of any politician or other figure, but the prince, who has a reputation for being a hot-tempered womanizer, has a long way to go to earn the same level of respect.

"With a much less popular king, and an increasingly popular prime minister, who has huge personal and political ambitions, you can see some degree of friction may develop," Peleggi said.

Thailand is among the closest U.S. economic and military allies in Southeast Asia, a relationship stretching from the war in Vietnam to the current war on terrorism. In a visit to Bangkok last year, President Bush and the king shared a warm public toast. "Your majesty, the world has changed greatly since your reign began 57 years ago," Bush told the king. "Yet thanks to your enlightened leadership and steady hand, the friendship between our two nations has remained constant."

For now, the throne remains the main symbol of Thai identity.

Portraits of the king and his wife, Queen Sirikit, hang in virtually every home, office and business in Thailand. Their birthdays are national holidays. Everyone, including foreigners, must stand for the king's song before movies are shown at the cinema.

Those rare individuals who get an audience with the king must kneel, never allowing their head to be higher than the king's. The same rule applies for any visual representation of the king, meaning any time his picture appears in print, it must always be at the top of the page or at the top of a building.

The king's annual birthday speech, traditionally given on Dec. 4, the day before his birthday, is broadcast live on the radio and is eagerly listened to by Thailand's 64 million people for his views on the country's development, and specifically, the government.

The king has only rarely intervened in politics, but in recent years has used his birthday speech as an occasion to make thinly-veiled criticisms of the government, and specifically, of the prime minister.

He showed even greater dissatisfaction last year when he refused to sign a bill on education reform, sending it back to parliament, ostensibly for minor flaws, for the first time in history. Although his signing of bills is merely ceremonial, it was seen as a major rebuke for the Thaksin-led government.

Outsiders may be uneasy at the idea of a constitutional monarch holding greater sway than a democratically-elected parliament and prime minister, but Thais have no qualms about accepting the king as the ultimate voice of political reason.

Like Queen Elizabeth of Britain, King Bhumibol's biggest headache may be his designated successor. Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, 52, graduated from a military academy in Australia and is the subject of endless gossip in Thai society since most news about him is far too sensitive to be published.

After leaving his first wife, a cousin in the royal family, and his second wife, a former actress with whom he had four sons and a daughter, he now has a new, young wife. They and their pet poodle, Fufu, have been the subject of fluffy reports in the Thai media. Privately, officials and generals who meet the prince grumble about having to bow not only to the prince but also to Fufu, who is often with him.

Most Thais would rather see as his successor his second daughter, Crown Princess Sirindhorn, who is widely adored for her many charitable works.

While gossipy magazines of royal high jinks may be popular in Europe, in Thailand, writers can land in jail. A "lese majeste" statute allows for up to 15 years in prison for defaming the king, queen or crown prince.

Over the years, foreign reporters have been threatened with deportation for unfavorable articles on the royals. Two years ago, an issue of The Economist that referred to gossip of the crown prince's "lurid personal life" was banned. So was "Anna and the King," the 1999 film starring Jodie Foster and Chow Yun-Fat, which had to be shot in neighboring Malaysia, with a lavishly expensive reconstruction of the palace.

Analysts say they doubt the king himself initiates use of the law.

"I definitely do not think the present king needs that law," said Kobkua Suwannathat, an expert on the Thai monarchy at the University of Tenaga National in Malaysia. "I'm not so sure about the future."

The American-born and Swiss-educated King Bhumibol did not live in Thailand until he was an adult. His uncle was the last absolute monarch of what was then Siam, but King Prajadhipok abdicated in 1935, three years after a bloodless military coup. The crown passed to Bhumibol's older brother, who was only 10 at the time. But a decade later, the young king was mysteriously found dead with a gunshot wound, a crime which has never been publicly explained and is still taboo to discuss in Thailand.

King Bhumibol, an accomplished jazz musician and yachtsman, was crowned in 1946 but did not take a prominent public role until a decade later. He built his stature by sheer force of his personality and accomplishments.

"His popularity is less the result of some historical continuity -- which is what's presented by official discourse -- and more the result of a very capable individual," said Peleggi.

In the subtle relationship between the monarchy and the country's politicians, the king has used his pet dog to convey messages. When "The Story of Tongdaeng" (Thai for "copper" ) came out two years ago, the first 100,000 copies of the book sold out within hours. It was Thailand's best seller of 2002. Last month, a follow-up cartoon version was published and also became an immediate best-seller. Both books use Tongdaeng, who came to the king as a mangy stray, to tell lessons about gratitude, loyalty and humility.

Many intellectuals interpreted the books as a message to Thai politicians.

"(The king) has this sense of commitment, of taking responsibility, of doing the right thing ... (which is) not so strong among his people, the politicians in particular," Suwannathat said. The books are "a way of reminding them of the good characteristics of a Thai, that nobody is too low for your help."

But Suwannathat said it appeared politicians did not heed the first book, which perhaps explains the second.

The king is known to take a dim view of globalization and foreign investment, putting him at odds with many policy-makers. He frequently praises farmers, and after the 1997 currency crisis he advocated returning to the land and making agriculture the country's economic base.

"He doesn't believe in making Thailand an economic powerhouse and being a center of commerce," said Suwannathat. "What he believes in is people should be able to support themselves and not depend so much on the world economy."

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