To an outsider, an obituary of King Bhumibol Adulyadej might read like one of Queen Elizabeth II, another long-reigning monarch who became a symbol of her country, especially during times of massive political and economic transition. During his staggering seven-decades-long rule, Thailand’s economy boomed and achieved middle-income status, the country took fragile steps toward democracy, and a treaty alliance was cemented with the United States.
But Bhumibol Adulyadej’s death may set off shockwaves in Thai politics that the eventual passing of the British queen will not. Also setting the Thai monarch apart is the development of a personality cult that has made it difficult, particularly within Thailand, to separate fact from fiction about his life. (For an excellent analysis of the king’s life up to the mid-2000s pick up Paul Handley’s The King Never Smiles).
Most Thais have not known any monarch other than Bhumibol, the ninth of his line of kings. Fear over what his death would bring for a country rattled by an insurgency in the south, recurring violence in Bangkok, and deep political rifts, has been looming for nearly fifteen years. The king’s declining health was always a major unstated rationale for the growing chaos in the kingdom and the return of military dominance over Thai politics.
Fore more on my analysis of the mixed legacy of King Bhumibol, read my new CFR Expert Brief.