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Thai King Celebrates 60 Years on the Throne

Aired June 12, 2006 - 18:00:00   ET


ROSEMARY CHURCH, CNN HOST (voice-over): In Bangkok, Thailand Monday, a parade of royalty; the Crown Prince and Princess of Belgium, Queen Rania of Jordan, Great Britain's Prince Andrew. The world's heads of state paraded into Thailand's Throne Hall to celebrate this man, the nation's king, Bhumibol Adulyadej. He is the world's longest serving monarch, marking 60 years on the throne. And while the king has earned the respect of other royals, he has also won the hearts of his people.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): His Majesty loves us so we love him in return. He always cares for his people, so his people care for him.


CHURCH: Hello and welcome to INSIGHT. I am Rosemary Church.

Well, the longest serving monarch in the world is celebrating his 60th anniversary. But like many other royals, King Bhumibol Adulyadej is quite literally worshipped by his people, and there is a reason for that. He's used his own engineering qualifications to improve the lives of his people and, on the political front, has intervened in numerous crises to set the country back on track.

CNN correspondent Dan Rivers finds out more about this most revered royal.


DAN RIVERS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): King Bhumibol Adulyadej is revered to the point of being worshiped like a living god. He is the longest reigning monarch in the world, this week celebrating 60 years since his accession to the throne. And to the Thai people, he isn't just a head of state, he's a stalwart defender of democracy. Many here thank him personally for their freedom.

So, how did the king here become so loved in a region where so many monarchs have been overthrown, downsized or sidelined?

King Bhumibol inherited the throne in 1946 and was formally crowned amid much pomp and ceremony four years later. He traveled the world meeting foreign leaders, acting as a sort of ambassador for Thailand, here reviewing a guard of honor with President Eisenhower in 1960.

But he's also frequently had to guide Thailand back from the brink of crisis, intervening at critical times during a succession of 17 military coups since 1946. Many think he's been a guiding hand on the tiller, always steering Thailand back to democracy.

ANAND PANYARACHUN, FMR. PRIME MIN.: His strength, that is his what I call inner power or the hidden power. And, of course, he exercises that power very discretely and very rarely. But whatever he does, he does it for the interest of the nation.

RIVERS: In 1992, the king again exercised this discreet power during a political crisis. Two rival military leaders were summoned before the king after days of violent clashes between pro-democracy campaigners and the army. Pictures of both men submissively bowed before their monarch were carried live on Thai television, helping to calm the febrile atmosphere. They seemed like naughty school children being admonished by their teacher. It worked. The violence stopped. Democracy was later restored.

And then this year Thailand again seemed close to meltdown after huge street protests demanding Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra step down. He called a snap election, but it was boycotted by the opposition, leaving the country in a constitutional limbo with parliament unable to convene.

But, once again, the king intervened, going on television, asking the judiciary to sort out the mess. It resulted in fresh elections being scheduled for October this year.

(on camera): It's difficult for an outsider to really understand the Thai peoples' reverence and adulation of King Bhumibol, but everyone here says it's not because he is a king that he's held in such high esteem; it's because of his actions.

(voice-over): He's worked for decades to try and improve the lives of ordinary Thais, using his engineering background, advising on new irrigation systems, working to eradicate opium production, replacing it with more sustainable agriculture, trying to smooth relations with the Muslim community in Thailand's restive southern region.

MOCHAI VIRAVIDYA, AIDS CAMPAIGNER: The king is dearly loved and respected and revered because of his performance, not because of his blood. He has been to more countries, more corners of the country, talked to more poor people, helped more people with examples than any living or dead politician in the history of this country. So, he is genuinely respected for what he has done, not because of what he is called.

RIVERS: General Vasit headed the Royal Police for more than a decade and has got to know the king well.

GENERAL VASIT DEJKUNJOM, FMR. ROYAL COURT POLICE CHIEF (through translator): After 12 years with the king, I have come to just one conclusion, that the man lives only for his people.

RIVERS: And it has resulted in their utter adulation. Everywhere in Thailand, people sport "I love the king" wristbands or special yellow shirts adorned with the yellow crest.

A country proud of its king, that owes him its freedom, that repays him with affection and respect.

Dan Rivers, CNN, Bangkok.


CHURCH: All right. We're going to take a break now. When we come back, the man who wears the crown. We'll take a look at why King Bhumibol is one of the most revered and beloved monarchs in the world.

Do stay with us.


CHURCH: A lavish naval show in honor of a king is the climax of a five-day national celebration of Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej. A glittering flotilla of Royal Thai barges skipped along Bangkok's Chao Praya River, powered by 2,000 oarsmen in ancient royal costume. Royal guests viewed the 40-minute procession from a special perch while thousands of Thai's clad in yellow lined the riverbanks to watch the fleet. It was only the 15th such ceremony during the king's reign.

Sailing past the golden arches of the grand palace, the barges glided past the royal audience to finish at the Temple of Dawn, a famous Bangkok landmark.

Welcome back to INSIGHT.

Well, we want to take a closer look now at who exactly King Bhumibol is. How did he come to be one of the most revered and beloved constitutional monarchs in the world? And who will follow in his footsteps?

Well, let's get some answers to these and other questions. Joining us to do just that is John Brandon, director of the international program at the Asia Foundation.

Thanks so much for talking with us.

Describe to us, then, what kind of a king is he and what's his main style? How would you describe him?

JOHN BRANDON, ASIA FOUNDATION: Well, as your film clip noted, King Bhumibol is loved and revered by all types, precisely because he has traveled throughout the country, he has instituted many programs, agricultural development programs, environmentally sustainable programs, that have benefited his people.

For example, last year and during a drought in Thailand, he personally initiated a project and oversaw the project, where he developed a cloud- seeding technique which he patented to help relieve the drought in his country and to help the poor farmers, which the majority of Thai people are engaged in agriculture.

CHURCH: So that describes the king. What about the man? What's know about him on a more personal level? He certainly seems a very reserved man in the images we see of him.

BRANDON: Well, he is a reserved man, certainly in the images that we have seen, but it seems that he has struck a chord with the Thai people in terms of the way he engages with them. He has gone to the most remote and poorest villages in Thailand and people relate to him. They feel that he genuinely cares about their situation, at a time when you see other monarchies that may be having difficulties, such as in Nepal, no such thing exists in Thailand. He is loved and revered by all his people.

CHURCH: Now, we see other monarchs really struggle to be loved by their people. Others overthrown, some sidelined. In this instance, we're seeing really one of the most beloved monarchs in the world. How has he come to take that position?

BRANDON: Well, he may be the most beloved monarch in all countries, as evidenced by over 1 million people wearing yellow, which is the royal color, to hear his address last Friday.

He is -- as I said, he's someone who has really made a genuine effort to relate to the condition of his people, whether in rural areas or even in urban areas, in developing projects to help improve sewage in Bangkok.

He is somewhere where he is the moral authority in the country, and so during times of crisis, he has exerted his influence so as to bring peace and tranquility to the nation.

CHURCH: Is there any evidence that he's winding back on some of that participation? You mentioned the cloud-seeding project. Is he just as active and involved in trying to improve the lives of his people as he ever was?

BRANDON: I still think that he is. He is involved in various projects. I mean, he supports a number of projects throughout the country, and so he's not necessarily involved in each and every one of them, but he certainly has kept abreast of their developments by members of the palace who are responsible for administering them.

CHURCH: So, what happens to the monarchy after Bhumibol?

BRANDON: Well, I think that is a day that Thai's do not want to think about, but ultimately that they will have to. The heir apparent is his son, his only son, Prince Vajiralongkorn. And on that -- during that time, he will -- the royal privy council will meet and determine who the heir apparent will be, or the next king, and in all likelihood that will be Prince Vajiralongkorn.

CHURCH: Just in all likelihood? There are other possibilities there?

BRANDON: Not likely. Some people speculate that there could possibly be a crown princess, but there has never been a queen that has been sitting solely on the throne, and I don't think that that will likely happen.

I think for the time being the important thing is that the Thai people have all gathered together in celebration for the 60th anniversary of King Bhumibol, and I think that's what their focus is on today.

CHURCH: For sure, but no doubt looking beyond that. You say there were so concerns. So, what do we know about the prince?

BRANDON: The crown prince is -- he has performed certain royal duties and he is, you know, has been knowing this for decades, that some day he will assume the throne, that he will take over. But one has to say that after 60 years of such a remarkable reign that King Bhumibol has, that anyone who would succeed under those circumstances has a very -- has a very -- has a tough act to follow, quite honestly.

CHURCH: Indeed. I mean, is he going to be anything like his father? Is that the expectation?

BRANDON: I think that Thais would want him to act that way.

CHURCH: All right. Thank you so much, John Brandon, director of international programs at the Asia Foundation, thanks for talking with us here on INSIGHT.

BRANDON: Thank you.

CHURCH: We do have to take a break now. Coming up, the king and the political uncertainty ahead. With Thailand facing new elections, can the king again be a stabilizing force for his people? We'll talk about that.

Do stay with us.


CHURCH: Chaos on the streets of Bangkok. Back in March, protestors took to the streets demanding the resignation of Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. The embattled prime minister took a seven-week leave from office after elections in April proved inconclusive. Shinawatra has since returned to office and new elections are scheduled for October. But it was the king who brought order to the streets by stepping in to calm tensions. For Thailand, the diamond jubilee festivities have brought a welcome break from the bitter political divisions that have rocked this young democracy. On Friday, 1 million Thais flocked to hear a rare five- minute address by the king. Many wept as he called for national unity in the same spot where protestors had demanded the prime minister's ousting just weeks earlier.

Welcome back to INSIGHT.

Well, it was a rocky start to the year for the people of Thailand. A new political crisis saw their beloved king intervening yet again in the midst of protests and a prime minister under siege.

The king's image as a stabilizing force could very well be tested again come October when those new elections are scheduled. So, just how powerful is the Thai king and how far can he go in efforts to set his country on course?

William Itoh is a former U.S. ambassador to the kingdom of Thailand, and he joins us now from Washington to discuss these very issues and more.

Thank you, ambassador, for talking with us.

WILLIAM ITOH, FMR. U.S. AMB. TO THAILAND: Delighted to join you.

CHURCH: It's been interesting, really, watching the king intervene, back in 1992 and then most recently at the start of this year, and the people seeing him as this guiding, stabilizing force.

I want to look at the powers he actually has and how far he can go with those powers.

ITOH: Well, it is important to remember that the king is a constitutional monarch, and I think that he has always acted as a constitutional monarch. I think his authority comes from the tremendous moral authority that he has in the country and the kind of respect that he commands among the Thai public.

I think obviously over the years he has built upon his reputation, which I think is a very, very solid one in terms of looking out for the people of Thailand and particularly those in the areas of the country that are sort of left behind in the economic progress that has been made over the last three or four decades.

And so the king is truly beloved, I think throughout the country, and it's on the basis of that respect for his work that you have his influence being applied from time to time. But I think it is important also to emphasize that these interventions don't come very, very frequently. He did indeed talk to the judiciary, suggesting that they take a very careful look at the elections that took last April, and that did result in ultimately a decision to set aside the election results and to move to new elections coming in October.

But these interventions don't happen very often.

CHURCH: Indeed, don't happen very often. But certainly, when they do, they're memorable, aren't they? And with this latest intervention at the start of this year, did he deal with that crisis in the best possible way, do you think?

ITOH: Well, I think one has to also understand that he is a constitutional monarch, and I think his actions and public statements have always emphasized the fact that he is encouraging this process of democratic evolution in the country.

I think that monarchies by nature are, of course, are conservative institutions, but this particular leader has seen that in the best interest of the Thai people he has been comfortable with and is supportive of the developments within the political sphere of the country.

For example, in March of this year, after a fairly large demonstration, there was a petition on a group of individuals who were calling for the ouster of Prime Minister Thaksin, petitioning the king for his direct intervention, asking him to replace the prime minister and the prime minister's cabinet, and on that particular occasion, the king basically did not go along with that particular suggestion, basically saying that those actions would be undemocratic, and it wasn't until after the April elections that you find the king taking the public occasion to talk to the judiciary, to suggest that they come up with a solution to the political crisis that the country was facing.

I also would commend the speech which he made on Friday, which I think is a very interesting speech, literally a million people witnessing the speech on this very, very auspicious occasion. But the things he talked about, including unity, the need for the country to pull together and work together and cooperate with one another, I think that was a very, very important statement in terms of charting a course for Thailand's political future in the coming months.

CHURCH: Indeed, and I want to get to those October elections, but you just mentioned there the fact that a request had been made that the king intervene and remove the prime minister. Is that a sign? I mean, he wasn't really able to do that, but the fact that he was asked to do that, does that indicate the high expectations these people have for their king?

ITOH: Well, I think there certainly is a feeling that the king is the person that all of the people in the country would respect and would appeal to. But I think in this particular instance it also shows the king's understanding that he does not want to be seen as intervening in sort of the daily political life of the country. I think the king and the institution of the monarchy in Thailand, as it has developed as a constitutional monarchy, the king is comfortable with the general direction of the country, and obviously the points where he has intervened, as in the case of 1973 or 1992 or again this year, these have been occasions where it seems like the political machinery of the country was being derailed. And so I think once again it's sort of an exceptional circumstance when the king really makes these kinds of pronouncements.

CHURCH: What do we know about the relationship between the king and the Prime Minister Thaksin?

ITOH: Well, I think there is a lot of speculation that it's been somewhat of a competitive relationship. And, in fact, a little over a year ago there was considerable concern, I think, expressed in Thailand about the prime minister's involvement in one of the ceremonies at the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, and there was an accusation at that particular point from one of Prime Minister Thaksin's critics, saying that somehow the prime minister was trying to challenge His Majesty's leadership in the country as well.

So, I think some people have argued that there is sort of a competitive angle in terms of the power and authority of the monarch and the power and authority of the prime minister, and I think you can make a distinction between sort of power and influence.

There is no question that the king himself sees himself as a constitutional monarch and has tremendous influence based on that moral authority that he commands in the country. Up until the time of his resignation, of course, Thaksin Shinawatra was the most powerful political prime minister in Thailand's modern history. And, of course, it now remains, now that he is in as a caretaker prime minister, it now remains to be seen what his political future will be and what his political power will be as well.

CHURCH: Indeed. And, of course, that will be determined, as we said, in October, with these fresh elections now called.

What would you expect to be the role of the king in this? Do you expect this to go smoothly now?

ITOH: Well, I think I'd have confidence that Thailand is moving in this process and dealing with this political crisis in a sort of positive, competent manner.

I think, as one of your commentators pointed out, the celebration of the king's 60th anniversary has actually given Thailand a very welcome respite from the kind of political tensions we saw playing out in the streets, and I think that the focus also on celebrating Thailand, the nation of the country, the nation and the leadership role of the king over 60 years, I think is very important in terms of focusing the country on the need to move ahead.

As I mentioned, of course, his speech on Friday certainly had all of those themes. He also mentioned on Friday the importance of the respect for rules and authority and tradition. And so I think all of that adds up to a situation where the king will continue to support a constitutional resolution to the political crisis that we see here, and I for one am recently optimistic that we will see a Thai solution that will be coming before us in the next few months or so as they deal with these political challenges.

CHURCH: All right, I suppose we shall have to see. Ambassador William Itoh, thank you so much for talking with us.

ITOH: You're welcome.

CHURCH: And that's all for this edition of INSIGHT. I'm Rosemary Church.

We leave you now with more of the barge procession in Bangkok in honor of Thai King Bhumibol's 60th anniversary



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