If anyone coming to Thailand does even the most basic cultural research prior to arrival, the first thing all the books say is “don’t say anything bad about the King!”
King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who took the throne in 1946, is accorded an almost divine reverence, with titles such as Phra Chao Yu Hua (Lord Upon our Heads) or Chao Chiwit (Lord of Life). Holding very little actual political power by the Thai Constitution, the Thai people look upon their king as a spiritual father figure and, particularly as the King grows older, celebrate him in every possible way.
The punishment for speaking badly about the king is up to seven years in prison, foreigners included!
All images of the King, of which there are many of the King, Queen and Royal Family throughout the country (notice all my capital letters, just in case!) are to be respected and honored by everyone.
The anthem to the King is played over loudspeakers throughout the cities of Thailand and precisely 8:00am and 6:00pm every day, effectively bringing all bustling streets and busy markets to a halt. If you hear it, you must stand and be respectful, similar to hearing the National Anthem in the United States (and other countries). If you go to a movie in Thailand, there is a tribute to the King before the movie starts, for which all are expected to stand.
Politically, the King does have some power stemming from sheer respect and a shrewd discretionary use of his revered authority. This King has been on the throne through 17 (!) military coups and 26 different prime ministers, but the love of the King among the Thai people comes from his affectionate relationship with the people.
One of his first acts as King was a visit to the rural lands of Thailand and help them turn from growing opium to growing rice. His pursuits of sailing and accomplishments as a jazz musician and composer are admired and December 5th is the King’s birthday, officially Father’s Day throughout Thailand. Yellow is the Kingly color, worn and celebrated often, though the recent political demonstrations usurped the King’s color for their cause, leaving yellow-loving Thais a bit perplexed as to whether or not to wear yellow during this current political season.
Through the eyes of a foreigner, Thai love for their King is refreshing, despite the offense to freedom of speech, which is so valuable in any democracy. After 17 coups in 60 years, is it any wonder that the Thai people’s lack of trust in their government creates a much-needed bond between King and people? Given the continual political unrest and lack of stability with all Thai governmental authority, having a King and Royal Family in which they can trust has no doubt provided a much needed foundation in the Thai quest to create a trustworthy system of government.
As the King ages – he had to cancel his annual speech to the nation on his birthday last week –, Thais know their King won’t always be with them, so their affection soars for this King who has shown such care for his people for over 60 years. Given the history of Kingly abuse of power and authority worldwide, King Bhumibol Adulyadej is one who we can all agree should be celebrated by stopping and standing up at 8:00am and 6:00pm every day.