Thursday, June 26, 2008

‘Cold sweat’

BANGKOK—Thoughtful Thais break into cold sweat over a question few ask aloud: What happens when this king goes?

King Bhumibol Adulyadej turns 81 in December. The Chakri Dynasty’s ninth king, he’s the longest-reigning monarch in a world where coup d’ état, war, law or modernization shatters thrones.

“Commoner” King Gyanendra was shown to Narayanhiti Palace’s exit by Nepal’s newly elected regime. The sword toppled Prince Shihanouk in Cambodia (1970) and Laos King Vatthana Laos (1975). Only Thailand’s 205-year Chakri Dynasty remains.

Tradition melding into constitutions buttresses the crown in Britain and Japan. And there’s Hawaii. In a tent outside Lolani Palace, Her Majesty Mahealani Kahau would reinstall the monarchy overthrown in 1893. Her decrees—junking the State of Hawaii, welfare programs, etc.—are good-naturedly ignored.

Jazz-loving Bhumibol had no legal or military clout when he was crowned in 1946. He could inaugurate a gasoline station, though, notes Joseph Wright in his book, “The Balancing Act: A History of Modern Thailand.” The throne was a pawn that the military, the elite and monks bickered over to manipulate. They still do so today.

Yet over the next five decades, this youngster morphed into a monarch who can defuse major crises with a few words. In May 1992, Thailand teetered on the brink. Troops of the corrupt Prime Minister Suchinda Kraprayoon fired into demonstrators led by ascetic Chamlong Srimuang (a Ramon Magsaysay Award recipient in 1992).

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