Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Thai King in hospital

The headline in this morning’s English language Bangkok Post was “Foreigners join long queues of wellwishers”. The wellwisher queues are at the Siriraj hospital because the Thai King is currently there recovering from spinal surgery he had last Thursday. He is now walking with the aid of a walking stick and doctors are satisfied with the speed of his recovery. The king fell and fractured a rib on June 24 while walking around the palace grounds but officials have not said if the operation was related to that accident. The king has suffered from spinal problems since 1995, which doctors said were caused by old age. The condition was diagnosed in 2003 as lumbar spinal stenosis, and the king has been receiving physical therapy as treatment since last year.

King Bhumibol Adulyadej is the ninth king of the Chakri dynasty which has ruled Thailand since 1782. The 78 year old King is a constitutional monarch. The last absolute monarch was King Prajadhipok (known as Rama VII to non Thais) who ruled from 1925 until his abdication in 1935. However in 1932 a bloodless coup took place. It was orchestrated by the so-called People's Party (Khana Ratsadorn) who took control of the royal palace in Bangkok and arrested key officials while the king was at his summer retreat in Hua Hin. The People's Party demanded that Prajadhipok agree to become a constitutional monarch and grant Thai people a democratic constitution. The King agreed and the first "permanent" constitution was granted on December 10, 1932. King Ananda (Rama VIII) replaced him in 1935.

The two dominant figures in Thai politics during the 1930s were Luang Pibulsonggram (later known as Field Marshal Pibul) and Dr Pridi Panomyong. There were both educated in France but held very different opinions on how to run the country. Pibul favoured dictatorship whereas Dr Pridi paved the way for democratic change. By the end of the 1930s Pibul was PM and Dr Pridi was foreign minister. After the fall of France in 1940 to Nazi Germany, there were border skirmishes which resulted in the return of areas of Laos and Cambodia to Thailand. After Japan attacked Pearl Harbour in December 1941, they demanded free passage through Thailand to attack British territories in Burma and India. Pibul was powerless to resist and issued a declafration of war against Britian and the US in January 1942. Dr Pridi organised a resistance movement which eventually saw him regain power at Pibul’s expense. This enabled Thailand to avoid being seen as a Japanese collaborator at the end of the war.

King Ananda, meanwhile had reigned since 1935 as a boy of 10. But on June 9, 1946, Ananda was found shot dead in his room at the Grand Palace during an official state visit from the Swiss government. In October 1946, a Commission of Inquiry reported that the King's death could not have been accidental but that neither suicide nor murder was satisfactorily proved. This mysterious death brought his younger brother to the throne. King Bhumibol Adulyadej was pronounced Rama IX (crowned in 1950) and he reigns to this day.

Dr Pridi was accused of complicity in the death of Ananda and was forced into exile by Pibul. He attempted two comebacks in 1949 and 1951 but both ended in failure. Pibul remained in power until 1957 until he too was overthrown by Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat in 1957. In November 1971, Prime Minister Thanom executed a coup against his own government, thereby ending the three-year experiment with what had passed for parliamentary democracy. In October 1973, Thai students staged massive demonstrations that overthrew the military government and sent its leaders into exile. After an interregnum of three years, the rightists returned to power in 1976 in a violent coup.

The king is a constitutional monarch similar to the British royals but he is deeply revered. His role as mediator in the crises of the 1970s and 1992 won him great respect. His death, whenever it happens, will be the source of great mourning across the country.

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