In our house here in the Great Lakes region of the United States, we have two prominent pictures on the wall. One is of King Chulalongkorn, who ruled Siam in the mid- to late-1800s. Chulalongkorn, whom Thai people revere as we in America revere Abraham Lincoln – took great steps towards modernizing the country, and he is best known for ending the practice of slavery not long after our great President Lincoln did the same here in the U.S. The other is a picture of Thailand’s beloved King Bhumibol Adulyadej.
Here in the United States, we don’t have a royal family, but we still must admire – and perhaps even learn something from – the Kingdom of Thailand, and the positive impact the late King had on his country. He was the embodiment of what in this Buddhist kingdom is called Dhammaraja, or “ruling with righteousness.” George Washington called the United States a “great experiment,” founded under the idea that those who rule, do so with righteousness, for the good of all, and in that way, we may have something in common with King Bhumibol’s Thailand.
But now, while our political leaders are constantly embroiled in back-room deals, pork barrel initiatives that benefit the few while ignoring the many, and politics for the sake of power rather than serving the public, King Rama IX, as he was known, was known to have brokered peace between two warring internal factions that would never be caught in the same room had the King not forced them both to kneel together in front of him and stop the internal strife that was beleaguering the troubled country. Out of the royal treasury, he funded countless programs for the rural poor. With the help of his long-time friend Lord Chamberlain Khwankeo Vajarodaya, the King funded a distance learning program that brought education to children in the most remote hilltribe regions of the country. I had the privilege once of meeting with His Excellency Khun Khwankeo and touring the school facility, and was struck with the sincerity of everyone involved, and the degree of involvement the Royal Household had in the success of this project.
The Western press mischaracterize the Thai peoples’ reverence for their King, and often note that he was seen as Divine. In fact, to make this claim is to do the Thai people, and the King, a disservice. Bhumibol Adulyadej was very much a man – a man of the people – who never claimed Divinity. It’s true that reverence for this particular King took on a character of its own, but to understand this reverence, it is important to note that he was widely referred to by Thai people as “Father,” and he represented everything good about this very unique Asian kingdom.
For 70 years, the King was a unifying force that held the country together during troubled times. The next King, the current Crown Prince Maha Vajirilongkorn, has what we Americans would say “big shoes to fill.” We hope that he may rule in the spirit of his father.