Thai King Bhumibol, ‘The Strength of the Land,’ Fades Away

BenarNews staff
Bangkok and Washington
161013-TH-obituary-1000.jpg Thailand’s King Bhumibol and Queen Sirikit greet well-wishers from a balcony at Ananta Samakom Throne Hall in Bangkok, on the occasion of his Diamond Jubilee celebration, June 9, 2006.
Courtesy of Bureau of the Royal Thai Household

The death of Thailand’s King Bhumibol Adulyadej after a 70-year reign and years of declining health has left the kingdom grappling with the reality that this bedrock figure of Thai society is finally gone.

The world’s longest-reigning monarch passed away on Thursday of health-related complications at Siriraj Hospital, a facility overlooking the Chao Praya River where he had been treated on and off for years, palace officials said. He was 88.

“Very, very few Thais can remember a time without Bhumibol as king,” Paul Handley, author of “The King Never Smiles: A Biography of Thailand’s Bhumibol Adulyadej,” told BenarNews.

“For many people he has been the one constant in a society that has changed very much, gone through some terrible convulsions, frequent coups by the military, rapid economic development and major setbacks.”

Because of failing health the king seldom appeared in public in recent years. Yet he seemed to be omnipresent. Images of the bespectacled monarch could be seen everywhere.

“The King wholeheartedly dedicated his life to improving the livelihood and qualities of all classes of people,” Kitti Tantivejjanond, a 63-year-old citizen, told BenarNews.

“I only wish that the next one acceding to the throne shall follow in his footsteps to take care of people and the nation in the same way that the King did,” Kitti said before the king’s death was announced.

Sudden ascension to the throne

The sudden, unexplained death of his older brother thrust Bhumibol onto the throne on June 9, 1946, at the age of 18.

He became Rama IX, the ninth ruler of the Chakri dynasty, the same day King Ananda Mahidol was found dead in his bed of a gunshot wound at the palace in Bangkok.

Until his own death, Bhumibol was the longest-living monarch, ahead of Queen Elizabeth II.

On many occasions during his reign, Bhumibol acted as a unifying figure who intervened to rescue Thailand’s fragile constitutional democracy from political crises.

“Our nation belongs to all – not one or two,” the king said in May 1992, when a post-coup power-play between two rival generals resulted in protests that turned deadly.

“If Bangkok is ruined, so is the entire nation,” he added. “There is no use to be proud as a victor on top of the ruins of a nation.”

‘Baby Songkhla’

The youngest of three children, Bhumibol Adulyadej was born in Cambridge, Mass., on Dec. 5, 1927.

His father was Prince Mahidol of Songkhla.

Because his parents had yet to name him and were waiting for his uncle, Prajadhipok (Rama VII) to send them a name, Bhumibol’s birth certificate identified the newborn as “Baby Songkhla.”

Rama VII later sent them a telegram with the name Bhumibala Aduladeja, which was later changed to Bhumibol Adulyadej. Derived from Sanskrit, the name means “The Strength of the Land, Incomparable Power.”

Bhumipol was the grandson of King Chulalongkorn (Rama V), considered one of Thailand’s greatest kings for reforms that he instituted, including the abolition of slavery. Rama V made it his mission to modernize Thailand (Siam) and align it with Western standards.

Bhumipol’s family lived in a modest apartment in the Boston area, while his father studied public health at Harvard University.

After graduating from Harvard in 1928, Prince Mahidol returned to Thailand with his family.

The prince became known back home as the “Father of Medical Science” for his efforts to improve Thailand’s medical services. But Mahidol died of kidney failure in September 1929.

Bhumibol’s mother, Princess Sangwan Mahidol, later moved the family to Switzerland. In 1933, she and the children settled in a small apartment in Lausanne.

The princess, in fact, was a commoner who wanted to raise her children under normal conditions.

Bhumibol would stay in Switzerland for the rest of his childhood and education.


In 1932, a revolt by the People’s Assembly in Thailand led by members of the elite and military ended absolute monarchy and brought about a constitutional democracy.

The kingdom did not become a republic, and although King Prajadhipok abdicated from the throne two years later, the monarchy was kept intact.

After his abdication, the Thai parliament agreed to invite Prince Ananda, Prince Bhumibol’s older brother, to the throne following the Law of Succession.

Prince Ananda became king (Rama VIII) at age 9, but stayed with his family in Switzerland. In his absence, royal regents were appointed to run the kingdom until he matured.

The young king returned to Thailand in December 1945.

On June 9, 1946, King Ananda, 20, was found dead at Boromphiman Pavilion with a gunshot wound to the head. The circumstances around his death still are a mystery today. It is unknown whether the young king took his own life, or was assassinated or shot by accident, according to reports.

Prince Bhumibol acceded to the throne but returned to Switzerland two months later to study political science and law at Lausanne University in preparation for his new role as king.

It was in Switzerland where he met his future queen, Sirikit Kitiyakara, the daughter of Prince Chandaburi Suranath, the Royal Siamese ambassador to France.

They were engaged on July 19, 1949, and wed on April 28, 1950. They would have four children: Princess Ubol Ratana; Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn; Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn; and Princess Chulabhorn.

One week after their wedding, the king was crowned officially in Bangkok on May 5, 1950.

Leadership amid turmoil

But since constitutional democracy came about in 1932, at least 19 separate coups have shaken Thailand, according to a report in The Atlantic magazine.

Bhumibol was seen “as a stabilizing influence” that held the kingdom together through many coups and 17 different constitutions, according to BBC News.

The king intervened at least three times when the country was plunged in political chaos – in 1973, 1981 and 1992.

The first time was when soldiers fired on pro-democracy demonstrators in ’73. Eight years later, he stood up to a group of army officers who had staged a coup against the prime minister, BBC News reported.

He, however, did not intervene during a crisis in 2006 that led to the ouster of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. The king was asked to step in but said it would be “inappropriate” to do so, according to the BBC.

The king, nonetheless, was praised for holding the country together while communist insurgencies swept across Indochina and threatened to take root in Thailand in the 1970s.

The king and the queen then visited points north to south, trekking or camping out as they gave moral support to soldiers and other people.


In his lifetime the king accumulated immense wealth (in 2011, Forbes magazine estimated Bhumibol’s fortune to be upward of U.S. $30 billion), but he was a monarch who did much to help his people. He started more than 4,000 development projects nationwide.

Those projects cut across agricultural sectors and promoted irrigation, and drought and flood alleviation. They also boosted public health, opportunities for distance learning and jobs. These helped improve the livelihoods of Thais and hill tribes in the country.

The king was even a rain-maker. He was behind a successful scheme to bring artificial rain to help farmers with their crops in drier parts of the country.

The method developed by the king – by which airplanes seeded clouds with rain-inducing chemicals – became patented.

He began experimenting with the method in 1969, based on tests conducted decades earlier by General Electric. The proven technique helped parts of Thailand recover from severe drought in 1999.

Leaders of arid countries came to him to inquire about his recipe for rain.


In public, the king may have cut a dour figure, with his subjects having to crawl or kneel before Bhumibol as they approached him. But there was a lighter side to him.

The king was an avid photographer and lover of music. A jazz aficionado, he was a noted saxophone player and composer.

Bhumibol jammed with the likes of Benny Goodman, Stan Getz and other legends. And, late into his 70s, he held regular jam sessions with his own band at his palace.

He composed dozens of his own pieces.

One of them was called “Falling Rain.”

He was inspired to compose it while listening to the radio one day, Bhumibol said in a 1981 speech, according to the Associated Press.

“I felt the music in my head sounded better, so I turned off the radio and scribbled it down on a piece of paper,” he said.

“People liked that song. They said it was beautiful. I felt overjoyed.”


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