Thailand guards very carefully the reputation of its 79-year-old King, who is the world's longest-serving monarch after six decades on the throne. In late March, a Swiss resident of the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai was sentenced under lese-majeste laws to 10 years' imprisonment for drunkenly defacing portraits of the King and his wife Queen Sirikit.
Great sensitivity surrounds the image of the king. The Thai monarchy may be best known in the West through the 1956 Hollywood musical The King and I, but the movie was banned in Thailand for historical inaccuracies, as was the 1999 Jodie Foster update Anna and the King. A biography of the Thai royal published last year by Yale University Press was also banned in Thailand. Among other things, the book's author, Paul Handley, alleges that the King is not convinced of all the merits of Western-style democracy.
But unlike, say, North Korea, where Brillo-haired dictator Kim Jong-il demands obeisance by diktat, the Thai King is genuinely adored by the vast majority of his subjects, who consider him a living Buddha. Every Monday, millions of Thais voluntarily don yellow shirts in honor of their monarch, whose reign is associated with the color. Many cars in Bangkok's notorious traffic jams sport bumper stickers pledging allegiance to King Bhumibol, and nearly all public events in Thailand begin with a standing moment of respect for the royal. So encompassing is the love for the King and all things associated with him that a 2002 book written by the King about his pet dog a well-behaved mutt named Thongdaeng with an affinity for coconut juice was an instant best-seller.
The issue of the King's reputation extends beyond protecting the sanctity of Thai culture. One of the justifications Thailand's governing military junta gave for their coup last September against elected Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra were allegations that the ousted leader showed disrespect to the King. Thaksin has denied the charges. Shortly after the coup, the junta members were shown on Thai television in a private audience with the King, an image taken by Thais as an implicit endorsement by the monarch of the change of leadership.
Since then, the military-installed government has assiduously protected the image of Thailand's King, especially in the run-up to his 80th birthday this coming December, which promises no-holds-barred festivities. But no amount of celebration will hide the fact that the elderly King has been ailing of late and that his presumed successor, Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, inspires far less adoration from the Thai populace. Nor, it must be admitted, is the Crown Prince's favorite pet a poodle named Fu Fu, who on occasion has sat among guests of honor at gala dinners as beloved as his father's adopted street dog Thongdaeng. "What happens after the King dies is the question every Thai is wondering but cannot dare to speak aloud," says a political analyst who prefers his name not to be used because of the sensitive nature of discussing the monarchy. "Our King has held together our nation for 60 years, but many people are worried that the next one will not be able to do so wonderful a job. It is scary to think about."