A wise Western diplomat, commenting on how much Thailand has changed, expressed the common view of the current crisis that this was one that the revered king, Bhumibol Adulyadej, could not sort out -- as he has done so well in all the political crises of his 62-year reign. After all, thousands of anti-government protesters managed to shut down two airports for days, stranding 300,000 tourists, and the Constitutional Court dissolved the ruling party and banned Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat from politics for five years. Furthermore, although Somchai's brother-in-law and the king's nemesis, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, is in exile, he remains popular in rural areas, still has billions of dollars and many more in-laws to stand in for him in Thailand.
Thailand is like few other places. Since 1932, a constitutional monarch has reigned with few defined powers. But the current king has risen almost to the "absolute" authority status of his grandfathers. The politics since Bhumibol became king in 1946 has been Western-style constitutions with elections alternating with coups (18 and counting) at regular intervals. Some of the military leaders have been inspired; most have been tiresome and backward looking. The Thai say "mai pen rai" (let it be) whenever the soldiers march.
However, there is also a view that differs from the diplomat's: that the king is in fact -- just after celebrating his 81st birthday in a hospital -- savoring a very special and long-crafted victory. If so, in addition to being the longest-serving monarch in the world and the richest monarch in the world, he might be a king who not only reigns but rules. He's a gentle man in appearance, but this crafty politician ascended to his current position through Tammany Hall-style deals throughout the kingdom.
Bhumibol came to the throne inauspiciously enough, when his brother was mysteriously killed in 1946. The military junta that actually controlled the country kept young Bhumibol in his place. "When I opened my mouth, they [the generals] would say, 'Your Majesty, you don't know anything,' " Bhumibol once recalled. "So I shut my mouth. I know things, but I shut my mouth." In 1957, the junta leaders were outgunned by a new regime that sought to use the king to promote its own popularity. He outmaneuvered them and has step by step moved ever upward in popular esteem.
In 1973, I asked Prince Birabhongse Kasemsri, later Thailand's ambassador in Washington and after that the king's senior assistant, why the king with his emergent strength didn't depose the comical and corrupt figures running the country. He said the kingdom must save the king for when there was no one else to save it.
That day came sooner than expected, when, later that year, students back from Europe and from Bangkok's growing universities, filled with new ideas, demanded democracy. In a style that has become all too apparent, Bhumibol waited until the ruling trio and the thousands of students were at equipoise, and then sent the trio into exile.
During the 1980s, the king's power was near absolute. Washington in the age of Jimmy Carter was demanding democracy throughout the Third World, so the palace permitted a pliant general, Prem Tinsulanonda, to rule in the king's name, but no one in the know had any doubts about who was calling the shots. And meantime, the economy was also shooting through the roof. It was too great a combination for anyone to dare or wish to stop it.
In 1992, another general misfired and attempted to put down an uprising of students and democracy promoters. After enough carnage, in much the same pattern of 1973, the king waited -- and then summoned the prime minister and leader of the protesters to a televised meeting. The world saw both of them literally crawling on the palace floor up to the throne to receive his (democratic -- or monarcratic) dispensation. Thailand then had a quiet decade, even surviving the seismic challenge of the 1997 economic collapse.
Then, in 2001, came the biggest challenge ever to Bhumibol. Thaksin Shinawatra found a formula for enchanting the rural vote while ignoring the self-styled democrats in Bangkok and pulled off an electoral landslide to become prime minister. With so much strength and a fortune amassed largely from a government-granted cellphone concession, Thaksin made the mistake of wondering why the old man, now moved to his seaside palace in the south, should be permitted such sway. He didn't move openly against the king, but in a thousand ways tried to cut him down to size.