There is a mystery surrounding King Bhumibol Adulyadej that goes right to the heart of modern Thailand. Why does the King of the Land of Smiles never smile on state occasions? It seems paradoxical. The King is universally revered by the entire population of Thailand. The most common way of referring to the King in Thai is Prachao Yu Hua--Lord above your head. In the villages, many are still too overawed even to look at him. Instead they put out handkerchiefs for him to walk on and save the scraps of cloth with his footprint in shrines at home. Thais have nothing but good things to say about their monarch, who in December celebrates his 72nd birthday, a highly auspicious milestone to Buddhists as the sixth cycle of 12 years. Thailand wouldn't be worth living in if we didn't have him, says Pim Sairattanee, also aged 72, a flower seller on Bangkok's busy Sukhumvit Road. He has a white heart, there is magic, goodness and power in his heart, adds Prachob Virawong, 42, a street vendor from the poor northeast who sells fried grasshoppers in Bangkok. When boxer Somluck Khamsing won Thailand's first ever Olympic gold medal in Atlanta in 1996, it was a portrait of the King that he raised over his head in celebration. Says Bangkok political scientist Chai-anan Samudavanija: He is perhaps the only monarch anywhere who has total love and no fear.
Yet the King floats above this adulation, observing it as if from outside his own body, gracious but distant, selfless in the Buddhist sense. In the age of celebrity, where the freeze-dried smile is required of all princelings of pop, King Rama IX is habitually shown with the demeanor of a religious ascetic. After 53 years on the throne, the Thai king occupies a uniquely quiet space as a monarch. His magic is not the magic of the tabloids. And the demons that pursue him are not paparazzi on motorbikes.
Never underestimate the forces of darkness in this country, said former Prime Minister Anand Panyarachun in 1996. Thailand promotes itself through its national airline as smooth as silk. But all too often the silk has been shredded, as selfish, power-hungry, cynical men have torn the national fabric to satisfy personal ambition. There are two sides to Thailand, and while foreigners mostly see only the smiling face of the country, Thais know too well about the other side.
It was the darker side that produced the right-wing vigilantes who beat and hanged students at Thammasat University in 1976. From the forces of darkness, too, came the military cabal led by General Suchinda Kraprayoon, which had dozens if not hundreds of democracy protesters gunned down on the streets of Bangkok in May 1992. Child prostitution in Bangkok brothels, rape and murder of Vietnamese boat people on the high seas, drug trafficking by cabinet ministers and corruption on a colossal scale--all come from the dark side of Thailand's complex society, where gentle Buddhism cohabits with some fearsome evil spirits. And all are known to Bhumibol, who as King must strive to stay above them, even if he aches to speak out against them.
Sometimes he cannot hold back, and it is when Thailand has endured some of its most painful hours that the King has been most visible, descending from above, in the Thai phrase, to exert his influence against the chaos and violence that he loathes. In 1973 he ordered the gates of Chitralada palace, where he lives, opened to students who were being shot at by the army--against the advice of his bodyguards, who feared for the King's own safety. During the violent demonstrations of 1992, it was the King who summoned General Suchinda to the palace--and then had their audience televised live. The entire Thai nation saw the general crawling across a carpet to the feet of his monarch, as protocol required, to be told with withering sarcasm: It may come as a surprise why I asked you to come and meet in this manner... Thais breathed a sigh of relief--the hated Suchinda had been politically vaporized.
For the most part, though, the King stays above Thailand's messy political stage, preserving his rare elixir of mystique and power for use when it is absolutely necessary. We keep in the middle, neutral, in peaceful coexistence with everybody, he said in a rare interview with the BBC in 1979. We could be crushed by both sides, but we are impartial. One day it will be very handy to have someone impartial.
The middle way has been a lonely and perilous road for the world's longest-reigning monarch. Born in Massachusetts on Dec. 5, 1927, the King was educated in Switzerland before returning to Thailand after World War II with his elder brother, Ananda, who was then King. Six months later his brother was found shot dead in his bed in an incident that has never been fully explained. Bhumibol himself has said: It was not an accident, not a suicide, but what happened is very mysterious ... it was political.
Whatever the truth of the affair, it was a brutal baptism into Thai power politics for the 18-year-old Bhumibol, who became King the same day, June 9, 1946. Since then he has been haunted by the death of his brother while occupying a throne he never wanted. Unable to speak out openly about a host of injustices across his kingdom, the King could do little more than teach by example, traveling to the remotest regions to support rural development--and short-circuit the appeal of communism to the poor. When the King traveled to villages he would talk to the common people, and he didn't worry about polite language [that commoners are meant to use with royalty], says General Sayud Kerdphol, a former army commander who frequently accompanied the King upcountry. He would encourage them to use ordinary language. The first of more than 2,000 royal projects by the man who is above everyone was a village cooperative in Petchaburi province in 1964.
He has a real sense of compassion for ordinary people, Mother Teresa-like, says William Stevenson, author of The Revolutionary King, a controversial biography of Bhumibol published this year in London. But he's always been on a tightrope. He would say 'I am not a god of gods, I am a human being, and I don't like to be put in this position.' Although Stevenson spent hundreds of hours with the King researching the book, which was actually proposed by Bhumibol, Thai distributors will not sell The Revolutionary King and the Royal Household Bureau has warned the Thai media about even referring to the volume in print. The book has been criticized by Thais for factual inaccuracies and for being disrespectful by referring to the King throughout by his family nickname Lek, or little brother. Stevenson's theory that the King's brother was killed by a Japanese spy has also been dismissed by Thai historians. The King said from the beginning the book would be dangerous for him and for me, says Stevenson.
Danger tracks celebrities wherever they go, but when the King insisted on traveling to remote areas where communist insurgents were active in the 1970s and '80s, his personal safety was a nightmare for his aides. Police General Vasit Dejkunjorn was the King's chief of security from 1970 to 1981; the 40-year-old's hair turned gray in his first year on the job. Bhumibol was oblivious to danger. The King treats himself as someone else, he has the Buddhist notion of non-self, says Vasit, who shares the King's habit of meditation. During a trip the King made in 1979 to Yala in the south of Thailand, several dozen people were injured by two explosions in the crowd only 150 m from the King. They took the wounded out, then the King went ahead with his speech. I didn't detect any change in his voice. I told him we should leave, but he didn't listen. If it had been an American president, he would have been forced out, but who can force the King?
If his courtiers cannot force the King, they can smother him with protection. As soon as he leaves his chamber, he is surrounded by guards from the army, air force and navy, says Vasit. There is also a police security unit and the royal household's civilian security force. The King rises around noon, takes lunch in his study mid-afternoon, and dines late in the evening with the Queen. He works or reads late into the night, often going to bed as dawn approaches. He is never alone, but is nonetheless a lonely man in the dark halls of the palace. It is difficult for the King to have friends, says Tongthong Chandrasu, dean of the law faculty at Chulalongkorn University. Those who are known to be friends are attacked by jealous courtiers. Requests to see the King for this article were turned down. Even a senior royal aide also declined to be interviewed, saying, I have to protect my King.
Throughout his life, the King's only real escape from Olympian melancholy has been his passion for jazz. Long before his health deteriorated, there were recorded sessions of the King's band on weekends that went out over the radio. Any famous jazz musician visiting Thailand invariably received an invitation to play with the King. Some say music is like medicine for him, says Manrat Srikaranonda, a pianist who has played with the King since 1956. He can play the saxophone very sweet. Even when the King moved to his seaside Palace of Far from Worry during the heat of the summer, the jazz continued. We used to play all night in Hua Hin until dawn came, and then walk out on the beach.
But although Manrat still goes to the Palace on Friday nights to play, the King has less stamina these days. Thais have not seen much of their King this year--his health is fragile. He has a heart condition that first required surgery in 1995, as well as chronic back pain that originated from a car accident 50 years ago. Yes, he still plays, but not so long. And he must rest between sets.
Many Thais are uneasy at the thought that they may be living in the twilight of Bhumibol's reign. Even as the nation prepares to celebrate his 72nd birthday, thoughts of the future are tinged with foreboding. The 47-year-old Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn has yet to achieve the same level of devotion among Thais that his father enjoys, and some say the King has set an impossibly high standard to follow. In an era when monarchies have been in retreat and many royal families engaged in an extravagant lifestyle, the King went the opposite way, says M.R. Sukhumband Paribatra, the Deputy Foreign Minister. He worked hard, had a frugal life, visited his people in remote areas. His successors will find it very difficult to walk in his footsteps.
The King may take solace from the knowledge that he has outlived some of the forces of darkness that threatened Thailand during his reign: communism has disappeared, and along with it much of the vicious right-wing militarism that sprang up to oppose it. Coups seem barely conceivable in Thailand today. Thailand still has its problems, and the King has long agonized about how to make society fairer, even as the World Bank calculates that Thailand has the biggest gap between rich and poor in Asia. In recent years, the King has spoken out about the dangers of graft, environmental degradation, over-reliance on foreign investment and even the chronically gridlocked traffic in Bangkok--all issues affecting the everyday life of Thai citizens that their governments have been slow to address. But after more than half a century of taxing rule, the King should be above such worries. In Buddhist terms, he has made more than enough merit. As he completes his sixth cycle of 12, nothing more stands between King Bhumibol Adulyadej, Strength of the Land, Incomparable Power, and the smile on the face of the Buddha.
With reporting by Robert Horn and David Liebhold/Bangkok