During the 20th century, no area of the world has seen more heartbreak or suffered more tragedy than Southeast Asia. Long before any American involvement in South Vietnam, there was a brutal invasion and occupation by the Japanese, the scourge of colonialism by both the French and British, and a communist revolution in China that spread outward. Interspersed between all of this were the killing fields of Cambodia, boat people who fled Vietnam, as well as a repressive regime in Myanmar which until recently had been closed to outsiders.
Somehow Thailand survived. In the midst of all of the turmoil, Thailand has remained one of the few countries that managed to maintain its independence and territorial integrity. Except for Japanese occupation during the Second World War, the Thai monarchy goes back to the middle of the 13th century and a succession of kings were able to sidestep any colonial ambitions from a number of European nations. People forget that the monarch in the Rogers and Hammerstein musical The King and I was based on King Mongkut or Rama IV, and remains one of Thailand’s most revered figures.
Today, Thailand is a parliamentary democracy with a constitutional monarch. While the nation is experiencing series of its own growing pains, there is a near universal reverence for the current king. The stability offered by Bhumibol Adulyadej, known as Rama IX, has helped to navigate his country around a series of political minefields. Now in his 68th year of his reign, King Bhumibol is not only the longest serving Thai monarch but also the longest serving head of state in modern times.
At 86 years of age and in the autumn of his reign, Bhumibol can look back upon his time as monarch and rightly conclude he led his country through rough waters to the safe harbor of democracy. While the actual power of the current monarch is limited by the constitution, he has leveraged his moral authority on numerous occasions to improve the living standard of this people.
Bhumibol is simply everywhere. When you visit a first-run movie theater in Bangkok, prior to the trailers, you will see a two-minute movie on the life of his royal highness. Everybody stands at attention. There are billboards and posters of His Highness. Even here in the United States, most authentic Thai restaurants will have a portrait of the royal couple. It’s clear that Bhumibol has earned the goodwill of a grateful nation and it is as beloved in Thailand as the late Nelson Mandela was in South Africa.
As we look forward, one must wonder what comes next. His Royal Highness cannot live forever, and the next decade will be a critical period for Thailand. As I write, the societal divisions of Thailand are now showing up in American newspapers and they boil down to two distinct groups. Those who active with the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD) wear Red Shirts and are supportive of the current Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra. Those who wear the Yellow Shirts are members of the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), who originally formed to protest against the current prime minister’s brother when he held the position before he was overthrown by a military coup.
Between the ongoing disagreements of the red and yellow shirts is the political and economic future of one of South East Asia’s fastest growing economies. One thing is clear. As Thailand continues to grow its middle class and strengthen its professional class, military coups will be bad for business. They make investors communities skittish and that creates an environment of unease. Elections are the right forum to resolve these disputes.
In that sense, those who wear the Red Shirts have the upper hand so long as the economy remains strong. However, the current prime minister has to continuously reach across the aisle to ensure that those who wear the yellow shirts are not ignored. To do so would only create more discord down the road.
Through it all, King Bhumibol has navigated a neutral position, which has been a wise strategy thus far. In the past, Thailand had a history of military leaders with shorter periods of civilian leadership. Sadly, these coups of the past were often bloody affairs that were very disruptive. Perhaps the rationale for a strong military government was the Communist Party of Thailand (CPT) and it served as a real threat. However, that cancer has gone into remission since the 1990s and the country’s political dialogue has become more sophisticated.
Economically, Thailand is more regionally and globally interdependent and political disruptions like military coups will severely impact business relationships. With that in mind, solving Thailand’s problems at the ballot box will be the only reasonable course of action.
If that lasting legacy can be achieved, then the final years of King Bhumibol’s reign will be his greatest. Long live the beloved king.