King Bhumibol the Great served for over 70 years as king of Thailand, a reign ending with his passing this week at age 88. Consider the degree of change occurring in this southeast Asian country over the course of his lifetime and monarchy and realize he held this once remote, impoverished country together through the upheavals of coup d’etats, the Vietnam conflict, the bombings of Cambodia and Laos, Cambodian civil war – all going on around his country, without dragging it into the conflict.
Now, it’s hard to know just how genuine the Thai people’s reverence of their monarch is due to the lèse majesté laws in place – it’s illegal to criticize the king – but by most accounts it’s apparently quite genuine. He was seen as a stabilizing force in a country and region notoriously unstable.
When asked how he wanted to be remembered, he said on numerous occasions that he wanted to be seen as “useful,” to have acted for the poorest citizens. Indeed he spent the 1960’s and 1970’s deliberately visiting the rural poor, and learning of their needs.
He was born in the United States, educated in Switzerland, spoke English and French, but had no apparent desire to travel – there was too much to do at home. Due to political circumstances early on, he focused his attention on development projects, building away from agrarian to modern industry.
This was an apparently humble man who accidentally became king, and made the best use of his authority for his people as he saw it for more than 70 years.