It is inevitable, but it is bound to happen. Yet, when the day comes, it indeed feels surreal.
The King of Thailand, His Majesty Bhumibol Adulyadej, has passed away at the age of 88, earlier today.
In my life of 25 years, I have seen the passing of some of historic giants that have graced this planet. From Suharto to Ronald Reagan. Lee Kuan Yew to Pope John Paul II. Figures that have significant legacy, be it positive or negative, and say anything, but they cannot simply be ignored.
This time, however, is a bit, a bit, surreal, since I actually admire His Majesty.
My admiration starts a few years back, interestingly, as I prepare for an English speech competition, on “My favorite ASEAN head of state.” Head of state, the title say? King Bhumibol does meet the criterion (interestingly, some other participants do include prime ministers, who in themselves are not heads of state).
During this speech preparation, I actually learn a lot about him. I see his projects, notably agricultural ones. I see some of his photos, not only when he is sitting on his throne, but more importantly, as he is surrounded by his people (his ‘subjects’, you may say).
These photos are silent, but the impact remains profound. A few years back I take a look on the stories behind these scenes, all of which are filmed. With a camera hanging from his neck, the bespectacled Majesty walks in between his people, sitting in awe in front of grace, as the king approaches some, one by one, asking what seems to be the problem, and asking his aide to take notes, notably his thoughts on how it can be solved. Sometimes, he brings with him a map as well. It helps to know the geographical condition for him, understandably.
Here is the thing. When someone becomes a monarch, and more importantly, a constitutional monarch, you have two options. You can sit behind your throne, enjoying your majesty, cutting tapes, waving from balconies, and stop there. You have a second option, however: Break the barrier, without actually breaking the barrier, go down, seek problems, and try to solve them.
This particular king, gladly, is the latter.
He has the unenviable task of recovering a nation suffering not only the effects of World War II, but also turmoil and uncertainty following the unfortunate passing of King Rama VIII in 1946. He changes his field of study to law and politics to help him rule. He unites a nation under hardship. He becomes the country’s public face, going to countries to introduce Thailand to the world once again. He earns acclaim from far and beyond.
Yet his most important achievement is probably in realizing the ideal that is unseen in most cases. Constitutional monarchs are usually said of being ‘the unifying force of a nation.’ Yet you cannot see it more true in Thailand. In his 70-year reign, there are political turmoils, changes, disputes, conflicts, even unfortunate demises. Even so, His Majesty pierces through the constitutionality and brings stability to the country. He helps to unite the people in practically universal admiration and love for the king. This is difficult to be seen in the modern era, and therefore His Majesty represents something that is completely special.
Politically, people will say that his brilliance is that he stays beyond, above politics. True, that is. Gladly, he remains willing to breach boundaries, stepping in when it matters most.
His care for the people. His welfare projects. His loving care for the people. His political shrewdness. His helping hand in stabilizing the country. And much, much more.
A country tattered by war is now one of Southeast Asian’s largest economies and among the region’s most prominent political powers. Without him, we will never know, but I think things will not, and never be the same.
He will have his detractors. People may question him, disagree with him. But admiration will still flow to him, and at least for me personally, that remains unchanged. I still admire him as a leader, as a king, as a politician, and more importantly, as a person.
Now, the world will witness a very historic moment. For many, King Bhumibol is the only king. Many do not know any other king in Thailand other than Rama IX. A mourning period has been declared. The heir to the throne will soon be confirmed. The body will be cremated. A coronation will be held. A legacy will live forever.
It is of course saddening. When unity is most needed now, the very symbol that unites the very nation that he loves has just passed away. Yet in death, as in life, Thailand will definitely celebrate an auspicious life, a grace unlike any other, a king for a generation, a titan of history.
He belongs to a nation. Now, as the nation grieves in sadness, he belongs to the ages.
May the King rest in peace, and long live the King.