Childhood & Early Life
Bhumibol Adulyadej was born on 5 December 1927, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. His father, Prince Mahidol Adulyadej of Songkla, the 69th child of King Chulalongkorn of Thailand, was a first class prince born to a princess mother. He was regarded as the father of modern medicine in Thailand.
Bhumibol’s mother, Mom Sangwan (later Princess Srinagarindra), was a commoner. He was born youngest of his parents’ three children, having an elder sister named Princess Galyani Vadhana, and an older brother named Prince Ananda Mahidol.
At the time of his birth, his father was studying medicine at the Harvard University. His father obtained his degree, M.D. cum laude, in 1928, after which the family returned to Thailand. In the following year, his father died of kidney failure.
Bhumibol Adulyadej began his elementary education at Mater Dei School in Bangkok. In 1933, the three siblings accompanied their mother to Switzerland. Here, Bhumibol was admitted to the École nouvelle de la Suisse romande in Lausanne. Sometime now, he developed an interest in photography.
In 1935, on abdication of throne by their childless uncle, Prajadhipok, Bhumibol’s elder brother, Prince Ananda Mahidol, was named the new king of Thailand. As he was still a minor, a regency council was formed to act in his name, allowing the family to remain in Switzerland.
For his high school education, Bhumibol was enrolled at the Gymnase Classique Cantonal of Lausanne, receiving his baccalauréat des lettres with a major in French literature, Latin, and Greek in 1945. Thereafter, he entered the University of Lausanne to study science.
After the end of the Second War, the family returned to Thailand. There on 9 June, 1946, Prince Ananda Mahidol, by then King Rama VIII, died of gunshot under mysterious condition and Bhumibol was immediately declared the new King. However, the formal coronation did not take place until 1950.
After his brother’s death, Bhumibol returned to the University of Lausanne and changed his stream, studying political science and law, hoping that they would help him to conduct his state duties. Meanwhile, his uncle, Prince Rangsit of Chainat, was appointed Prince Regent.
On 4 October 1946, he met with a road accident, which injured his back and face, permanently damaging his right eye. Because of this incident as well as other circumstances back home, his official coronation was delayed till 1950.
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Bhumibol Adulyadej started his reign during the rule of military dictator Plaek Phibunsongkhram. Since absolute monarchy was by then abolished, he played mostly a ceremonial role. Although officially he was the Head of the State and the Commander of the Armed Forces practically he wielded very little political power.
As a king, he was the living symbol of the Thai society and its unity. All along, he maintained that the position of a king was above politics and he should remain impartial. Yet, he played a crucial role on several occasions, defusing or helping to avoid political crisis.
The first major crisis occurred in August 1957, when General Sarit Thanarat accused the government of Field Marshal Phibunsongkhram of lèse-majesté and corruption. Smelling a coup, Bhumibol advised Phibunsongkhram to resign; but the later refused to do so.
In the evening of 17 September 1957, General Sarit Thanarat, also known as Sarit Dhanarajata, seized power. Within two hours, Bhumibol proclaimed martial law, appointing Sarit, his close ally, as the ‘military defender of the capital’.
Sarit ruled over Thailand until his sudden death in 1963. During this period, monarchy was revitalized in Thailand. Bhumibol now began to attend public ceremonies. More importantly, he also made regular tours of the provinces, patronizing development projects, thus coming closer to the public.
During these tours, he was always accompanied by a small army of doctors. As the royal couple interacted with the illiterate villagers, who had little contact with the officialdom, the doctors checked their health, mitigating their sufferings. Very often, the critically sick patients were transported to the city hospitals.
He also personally oversaw the progress of irrigation projects, constructing dams to supply much needed water to the country’s poor in far flung hamlets. Although some of the projects failed, nobody could doubt his sincerity or diligence.
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He also revived many old ceremonies; the practice of crawling before the king, banned by King Chulalongkorn in 1873, being one of them. However, while earlier it was a general practice, it was now revived under specific circumstances.
General Sarit Thanarat died on 8 December 1963 and was succeeded by his deputy, General Thanom Kittikachorn. Very soon, discontent grew against his dictatorship, leading to a popular uprising in 1973.
In this 1973 uprising, great majority of the protestors were students. Initially Bhumibol asked them to disband and keep peace. But when police opened fire on the students, Bhumibol had the door of his palace opened to provide them refuge.
He also persuaded General Thanom Kittikachorn to resign and leave Thailand, paving the way for democracy. Thereafter, he decided to distance himself from the military; but very soon had to change his mind.
From 1975, when the guerilla uprising in neighboring countries began to pose a threat to the political establishment in Thailand, he once again started courting the military. He not only visited the military camps, but also warned against an attempt to install communist regime in Thailand.
In 1976, Bhumibol allowed Thanom to return to Thailand, leading to a violent protest, which ended in a massacre of students inside the campus of the Thammasat University on 6 October 1976. In the same evening, the military seized power and placed three names as possible prime ministerial candidates before Bhumibol.
Bhumibol chose royalist and an anti-communist Thanin Kraivichien as the next prime minister of the country. Thanin ruled for one year and was overthrown in a coup by General Kriangsak Chamanan, who in turn was succeeded by the popular Army Commander-in-Chief, General Prem Tinsulanonda in 1980.
In 1981, there was an attempted coup against Prem Tinsulanonda’ government. But this time Bhumibol refused to endorse it; instead he fled with his family and Prime Minister Prem to Koral province, thus making his support for Prem’s government clear. It saved the government.
Bhumibol was once again forced to take a decisive role, when in 1991, a coup returned Thailand to military dictatorship and Army Commander Suchinda Kraprayoon became the prime minister. In 1992, it led to violent large scale protests, resulting in the death of at least fifty-two persons.
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On 20 May 1992, while the crisis was at its peak, Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn and his sister, Princess Sirindhorn, appeared separately on television, with an appeal to keep calm. On 21 May, Bhumibol also appeared on television, accompanied by Suchinda Kraprayoon and leader of the prodemocracy faction, General Chamlong Srimuang.
In the telecast, Suchinda Kraprayoon and Chamlong Srimuang were seen adhering to the Thai tradition of appearing on knees before the King. Bhumibol also urged them to resolve the crisis, making a strong impression on the nation.
Soon after the telecast, Suchinda Kraprayoon resigned from his post, paving the way for the formation of a democratically formed government. Thus, Bhumibol’s direct intervention in the country’s politics reestablished democracy in Thailand.
In 2003, Bhumibol emphasized on eradication of drug abuse in the country and at his initiation, the government led by Thaksin Shinawatra, started a war on drugs, killing many of drug dealers, imprisoning many more. Over the time, the use of drugs was drastically reduced, especially among the school children.
In 2005, another crisis hit Thailand, leading to the overthrow of Thai Rack Thai government by a bloodless coup in September 2006. Although any discussion on the coup was banned by the new regime, it is believed that Bhumibol had prior knowledge of it and had implicitly endorsed it.
The new regime declared loyalty to the King and started investigating into some frauds involving both the Thai Rack Thai and the Democratic Party. Bhumibol intervened before the ruling came, declaring that the nation needed political system. If it was allowed to continue, both these parties would have been banned.
From 2008, when a political crisis involving People’s Power Party and People’s Alliance for Democracy erupted, he remained silent, aware of his kingly dignity. In the same year, he appointed General Surayud Chulanont to the Privy Council of Thailand. By then, his health had begun to suffer.
By 2014, his public appearance became few and far between. Yet, he continued with his royal duties, endorsing the military government that took over the administration after removing Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.
Personal Life & Legacy
On 28 April 1950, Bhumibol Adulyadej married Sirikit Kitiyakara, a distant cousin. The couple had four children. Their only son, Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, born in 1952, succeeded the throne on his father’s death in 2016, becoming King Maha Vajiralongkorn of Thailand.
Apart from Maha Vajiralongkorn, the couple also had three daughters named Princess Ubolratana Rajakanya, born in 1951; Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, born in 1955 and Princess Chulabhorn Walailak, born in 1957.
In 2006, Bhumibol suffered from lumbar spinal stenosis. Thereafter, his health began to decline and he was frequently admitted to the hospital. He died at the Siriraj hospital in Bangkok on 16 October, 2016, at the age of eighty-eight.
His mortal remains were cremated on 26 October 2017, more than a year after his death. The ashes were enshrined at the Chakri Maha Phasat Throne Hall, the Royal Cemetery at Wat Ratchabophit and the Wat Bowonniwet Vihara Royal Temple.