The King And I
As an American the concept of a monarchy is something we find amusing. Cries of “Duty to the Queen” carry all the weight of religion with many and as a citizen of a country where the only real royalty is “The King” Elvis Presley we can’t help but feel this royalty stuff is more than a bit overblown. Perhaps the closest thing America has to a royal family would be the self-appointed Kennedy or Bush families. Most all of our exposure to royalty is either the fiction of movies, cartoons, and storybooks, or the tabloid royalty of the UK where HM Queen Elizabeth II boasts the worlds second longest reign. No matter how seriously the Brits take royalty on a personal basis, and I know many take it very seriously, when you have a never ending series of tabloids making fun of the prince or the queen in some pretty outrageous ways it becomes hard to give or show them the respect they might deserve. Perhaps the best thing that ever happened to the British monarchy when it comes to how the American’s perceive royalty is when the Queen made her recent visit to America and we witnessed our President doing his best if not entirely correct attempt to show her the appropriate respect. The scenes were wonderful and the blunders funny, but no one had any doubt our President intended and tried his best to show the Queen the most respect possible. As Americans watching on the sidelines we could only appreciate the enormity of what was taking place and after decades of tabloid journalism we found a new respect for an old Queen. I think I can safely say for many that we have high hopes for Prince Harry and Prince William. Speaking for myself on a personal level, I’ve been exceptionally impressed by Prince Harry’s dedication to his military obligation. If only more of my own countrymen demonstrated half the mettle this young man has, surely this is what truly defines royalty?
The royalty of the dark continent barely deserves a mention so I won’t go there, and most of the royal families of the Middle East are best known through their excesses rather than their leadership. An exception would be King Hussein of Jordan who I barely knew through a series of amateur radio contacts spanning a decade. King Hussein was an avid radio operator and many operators the world over have one of his QSL cards earned during a contact and short chat. King Abdullah II his successor I know little about, but the world has been duly impressed with Queen Rania who became his queen in 1999 and her outspoken support for women and the poor can only be matched by her natural beauty. Queen Rania is the epitome of grace and poise.
We can also look to Asia for royalty with the Japanese royal family perhaps getting the most attention if not respect. I’ve personally had the opportunity to meet and chat with the exiled Prince of Laos and was suitably impressed with his vision and dedication, but the real reason I started this submission was to discuss HM Bhumibol Adulyadej, 9th Rama, the King of Thailand who holds the longest reign in the world. Of all the worlds royalty I’m most impressed with Thailand’s King and I’d like to tell you why, but it won’t be a short explanation but rather a series of personal observations.
Today my family and I went to the cinema to see a movie and something happened that made me think back to the first time I took my son to the movies in Thailand. It was about two years ago and we were at the same theatre in the VIP section which is mostly empty and quiet. The previews and advertisements started running and I’d forgotten to brief my son about having to stand and pay respects to the King while they ran the short video about him. When the words on the screen said “Please stand and pay your respects to the King” I nudged my son who gave me a less than pleased look as he forced himself to stand and watch the video. After we talked about Thailand’s King and having never been exposed to the concept of royalty outside of the entertainment world he looked skeptical. I told him I had the same skepticisms when first arriving in Thailand but I learned a lot about the subject by watching the Thai people and what the King meant to the people themselves. Today there was only about 10-12 people in the theatre and one of the people was a young teenager near his own age who refused to stand with his family. His Father exerted no control over the young man and being only a few seats away I was surprised to see my son bend down and whisper in his ear and then tug him by the elbow to a standing position. The kid glared at my son a few times and then took his seat when the video was over. After the movie I asked my son what transpired and he said he asked the kid to stand and show respect to the King and the kid refused. He then told the kid that if necessary he’d help him to his feet in a most painful way. I asked him why he got involved and he looked a bit embarrassed, but told me that during his many visits over the last two years he’s noticed the Thais have much respect for their King and the Thai people have treated him with respect and the respect should be returned. Simple to him, helpful to me.
You see, if there is any way to truly judge any man, much less a King or Queen or President or any sort of leader, it’s by the respect they command from those they lead. This is a very basic concept of leadership and a tenant I’ve lived by my entire career. Without the respect and support of your men, you cannot lead and you become an effective nothing. Respect can be earned in many ways and books have been written about respect and leadership, but ‘leading by example’ is perhaps the most effective way to earn respect. Even a casual visitor to Thailand cannot miss the love and adoration and respect paid to the Thai King and even the Queen, certainly it wasn’t missed by my son. The measure of a King is the measure of his subjects respect and dedication, in my opinion there is not a higher rated King in the world if we use this yardstick of measure.
Has King Bhumibol earned this respect, or are the Thai people just a bunch of uneducated rubes looking for any sort of leader as so many have suggested? Let’s take a look at some things. Over a year ago the “yellow shirt day” at work started to show respect and was closely followed by the orange bracelet. It started as a one day a week show of support and respect, but today you can’t walk down the street during working hours on any day without seeing a significant number of Thais wearing the yellow shirts. The survival of the “Lese Mageste” laws in Thailand seem antiquated and even cruel to many, but the recent prosecution of a long term expatriate for defacing a picture of the King and the lack of a real outcry from world leaders and even the local expat community was a de facto show of support for not only King Bhumibol, but the laws supporting the King. In my mind it was also a show of confidence in the King’s own judgment and compassion as we witnessed later when he pardoned the man who disrespected him. There’s much more.
Everywhere you go in Thailand, from city centers to rural outposts, you’ll see murals and pictures and all manner of visual displays of respect and adoration for King Bhumibol. Newly arrived visitors to the Kingdom are often surprised to see the entire side of a large building displaying yet another image of the King. It’s just plain impossible to walk down most any street in most any city or town in the Kingdom and not see multiple displays in the Kings honor. Have you ever seen one of these displays defaced or disrespected in any way? I’m sure it happens, but when it does happen not even minutes later Thai people come out of the woodwork to repair and replace. No hotel, no restaurant, and no home is complete without at least one image of the King. All of this is at the expense of the private individual citizen Thai. Try as I might, I cannot come up with a single figure anywhere in history, including Buddha himself, Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary or Mohammed who is displayed more often and respected so openly in the everyday lives of an entire country of people.
There are some peculiarities though. Most Thais are sorely lacking in education about their Kings. Most openly and proudly tell you who their favorite King is, and it’s almost always King #5 and King #9, King Chulalongkorn and King Bhumibol, yet they don’t know and can’t spell their names, in many cases can’t pronounce their names, and certainly can’t tell you the dates and order of succession or any of the associated historical facts. All they know is they love this particular King (in addition to the current King) and they’ll protect his honor with their lives, wear their amulets, hang pictures around the house, and wai any image or likeness of the same. It’s blind loyalty at it’s finest. Is this a good thing? I think it is.
The King is “of the people” and his primary duty is to protect and serve his subjects. He can do this best with an open heart and the open support of those he serves. Surely there is fault to be assigned to the King and I believe he would openly admit many mistakes and transgressions, but any leader, especially a leader who has been in power for over 60 years, will have made mistakes in both judgment and character. Yet, the Thai people love this King and in fact revere him as almost godlike in status. There are lists of “projects for the people” the King has been involved with on at least some level, scores of visits to all corners of the Kingdom, evidence of not only staying current in political affairs, but of knowing exactly when and how much to involve the royal family if at all. In fact, his restraint in all things political can be attributed to many positive leadership and personality traits.
As an American I grew up with a storybook view of royalty, my exposure to royalty was limited to tabloid journalism, and it wasn’t until later in my education and life that I started to show an interest in what for Americans is a foreign concept. So imagine my surprise to find myself respecting a King from South East Asia over all other known royalty, and more to witness my young son physically insist the proper respect be observed. I know books that don’t flatter the King have been written and sold and that there’s probably as much deserved as there is undeserved criticism about the King if I chose to notice. I choose not to notice. Why? Because I can’t help but notice what really matters, 65 million Thai citizens are united in support of their King and show him more respect and adoration than I’ve ever witnessed towards any other State figure during my lifetime.
I’ve watched the State Funerals of JFK and Ronald Reagan and the burial of Martin Luther King and the non-stop television coverage of Pope John Paul II’s last days through the view of the Papal Apartment window and subsequent memorial and succession events and who wouldn’t be emotionally moved witnessing such history? Yet, I can’t even imagine the national state of mourning which will take place upon the passing of HM Bhumibol Adulyadej, 9th Rama, the King of Thailand. I suspect the emotions and support displayed by the Thai people will be unequalled in modern history, just as they are daily as he lives his life, rules his Kingdom, and serves his subjects. Sometimes in life we are privileged to witness moments in history which are remembered forever, moments which impact an entire nation, and motivate an entire region. I’ve been privileged to experience the King's 60th, the love freely expressed by the Thai people, and bits and pieces of his legacy everywhere I look. I hope to have the privilege of witnessing the nation of Thailand paying their final respects to this King. I’ve personally benefited from my exposure and knowledge of this King, and grown personally from the experience. I’ve stepped beyond what is considered normal for my nationality and in this instance I’m proud of doing so. More, I’m thrilled to see my son learn at 14 what took me decades longer. Long live HM Bhumibol Adulyadej, 9th Rama, the King of Thailand.
Until next time..
The reverence the Thais have for HM The King is not something I have seen the people of any other nation have for a figure of state, royalty or national iconic figure. The depth of love shown by the Thai people is very deep indeed.