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Wednesday, 27 November, 2002, 14:58 GMT
Thailand's 'Soul of the Nation'
King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand

He's The Father of the Nation, The National Godhead, The Lord of the Lands, The Soul of the Nation, The Possessor of the Four and Twenty Golden Umbrellas.

Or simply, to most Thais, he's perfect, even "very perfect".

King Bhumibol Adulyadej The Great of Thailand is the world's longest serving monarch. He has been on the throne since 1946.

He may have no constitutional power but, after 56 years as king, he has emerged as the most powerful man in the country.

Adulation through graffiti

The reverence in which he is held by his people is quite something to perceive.

The Royal Grand Palace, Bangkok, Thailand
Thais revere their royal family

Pictures of him, and of his queen Sirikit, adorn posters and walls throughout Bangkok, many painted by ordinary people in a kind of graffiti adulation of their monarch.

Criticism of the king or any member of the royal family is unheard of, certainly in public.

Thailand's "lese majeste" laws (relating to crimes against the ruler), with prison sentences of seven years, are not there just for fun.

They are not infrequently used, though usually it's the politicians who are quick to cite them, often for their own purposes.

Taboo topics

There is a whole host of topics that cannot be discussed openly: for example the bloodbath in 1976, when troops and right wing mobs gunned down, lynched and burned dozens of demonstrating left-wing students.

Royal Grand Palace in Bangkok - part built by Rama V
The kings stood up to colonialism

Or the death of the current king's brother, king Ananda, or Rama VIII; he was found on his bed with a gunshot wound to the head a few months after returning to Thailand from Switzerland, where he was being educated.

Regicide, suicide, accident? His death remains shrouded in mystery - one that is not discussed.

Prolific genes

And don't talk about Hollywood's "The King And I."

Yul Brynner's portrayal of an earlier monarch, the revered King Mongkut, or Rama IV, cannot be seen in Thailand. The film is banned.

The film is indeed extremely inaccurate and fails to tell the story of what the Thais remember their kings for: preserving the country's independence in the face of aggressive British and French colonialism.

[An interesting side issue: between them Rama IV and his son king Chulalongkorn (Rama V) produced a remarkable 159 children.]

Golden stupa in Temple of the Emerald Buddha, Royal Grand Palace
Many Thais think of Rama IX as a god-king

The current king has been much more abstemious. He has just four heirs.

But any question about the succession after this genuinely much loved and respected king dies, well, that's another taboo subject.

After all, to many Thais, he is a divine being. His mortality is not to be contemplated.

Or, as the historian Charnvit Kasetsiri, summed up enigmatically: "Thailand is Thailand."

A twinkle in the eye, a smile and no more need be said.

Tiger Tales will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4, Thursday 28 November at 20:00 GMT. You can also listen to the programme from the Radio 4 website.

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27 Nov 02 | Asia-Pacific
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