Thai king’s poor health adds gloom

During his over 60-year reign, Thailand’s revered monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, has won the hearts of his subjects for being an all-wise, all-knowing father-figure. It is to Bhumibol that Thais turn when the country is in trouble. But that was not to be on the eve of Bhumibol’s birthday, Dec.5, when instead of the speech he customarily delivers, there was silence. In recent years, his speeches have warned about the evils of smoking, concerns about the spread of narcotics and a statement that nobody is above criticism — not even a king.

And the public reaction to the king’s silence on the evening before he turned 81 has been a mix of shock, worry and tears. Such feelings stem from Thais being forced to accept that Bhumibol is in his twilight years and ailing. His silence on Thursday was the result of a bout of bronchitis and an inflamed oesophagus. Yet the sombre mood also revealed something more: many Thais had looked forward to this year’s speech following the political crisis that has roiled the country for over six months, almost pushing it towards the brink of chaos.

“I am very worried, because this has never happened before. In the past, no matter what, the king always gives his speech full of advice about morals and values that fit the country at that time,” says Maneerat Chuenchailek, a programme manager at an electronics company. “Thais always look forward to his words of guidance.” Such sentiments in Bangkok were echoed in the northern city of Chiang Mai, where people were in shock, some crying, when the news spread close to 6 p.m. that the king had not spoken at the annual birthday ceremony.

Such expectations come from a culture that has taken root in Thailand over the past decades, where the king’s speech has come to be accepted as “the views of the highest authority in the country,” says Thanet Aphornsuvan, dean of the liberal arts faculty at Bangkok’s Thammasat University. In the past six decades, Bhumbol succeeded in transforming the monarchy into the most important institution in this South-east Asian kingdom by winning his subjects’ hearts through royal projects to help the rural poor, unveiling new plans for irrigation and agriculture, and creating a rain-maker.

The world was offered a unique window into this feature of Thai politics in 1992, when Bhumibol, as the head of this constitutional monarchy, stepped in to restore peace following bloody clashes between a military dictator and the leader of a pro-democracy movement. It was a similar role that Thais were hoping the king would play to ease current political tensions. For there are ample signs that the clashes between a right-wing, anti-government movement and supporters of the government that just collapsed after a superior court banned the ruling party on Tuesday are far from over.

“At a time like this, when Thailand is so deeply divided, this speech would have been the most difficult one to make,” says Thitinan Pongsudhirak, political scientist at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University. “Thais have always looked to the king to be a saviour.””But maybe what happened on Thursday is an opportunity for the protagonists in this clash to solve problems on their own,” he added in an interview. “What they need to do is have acceptance and accommodation of each other’s demands.” — IPS