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The Thai king's message
Publication Date : 11-12-2013
"Unity" can be a powerful political rallying cry, intended to destroy one thing as much as to protect another. Or it can be uttered out of pure love and concern. We heard Thai King Bhumibol say it last week without expecting cheers or fists in the air in response. The monarch's long pauses during his birthday speech meant the word did not even come in a complete sentence. But the message was perfectly loud and clear: He wants a nation at war with itself to stop and think it over.
The king's voice trailed off a few times during the traditionally brief birthday address to the Thai people. The impact was huge at one particular point, when he began with "Our country" and then went quiet for what seemed like an eternity. His love for the Thai nation, his fatherly worries, the responsibility that sat far heavier than the fully decorated royal robes he wore, all manifested in that very moment. For a few seconds Thailand stood still for a change.
There was not much else he could do, but his mere presence was more than enough to pull Thailand back from the brink once again. The political enemies are brawling kids who freeze when an adult they respect shows up. The fight might resume, but sometimes a mutual step back is all that's needed to avoid total tragedy. How much Thais owe the king for last week alone might be incalculable.
Every year on his birthday, the monarch calls for unity. His plea is never associated with "victory" or "conquest". In his mind, true unity is peace, and vice versa. These two elements have gone hand in hand in the most matter-of-fact manner during every birthday speech he has delivered. It's difficult to romanticise such simplicity - but the King has never been one to dramatise his values.
His "unity" is aimed at keeping Thailand together so she can be competitive enough to withstand the global winds of change. It's never about one ideology belittling or destroying another. While "unity" is often a rhetorical weapon among enemies, the King used the word to inspire true brotherly love and harmony.
The "yellow dust" were out in full force again last week to wish him a happy birthday. The turnout came against a backdrop of Bangkok streets swept hurriedly clean of debris left two days earlier. As usual, the King began by thanking the well-wishers. There were no pauses there, before his temporary silence amplified that one word: "unity".
A monarch whose palace is strewn with experimental agricultural farms and laboratories, who has taken long and laborious expeditions in the service of poor rural folk and whose undoubted wish is to see all Thais stand on their own feet, is entitled to preach the values of sufficiency economy. A king for whom religious, political or social differences don't matter has the right to teach the worthiness of harmony. And as someone who really "walks the talk", his few words must be accorded the authority to make the country think long and hard.
Thailand has arrived at many crossroads since King Bhumibol Adulyadej was born. Some have had to do with the relevance of the monarchy in modern life. But he has never been a "fairytale" king, wearing a golden crown and sitting on a throne. Here is a monarch who, as a child, never threw away a pencil before it was too short to handle, who is photographed sitting on the ground talking to people more so than any Thai politician, and who never says "I love Thailand" just to lift himself above others.
Thais and others watching must have been holding their breath during his speech last week. If there was uneasiness among the people, however, it was brief. In no time, shoppers were back shopping, businessmen back anxiously watching the stock market and politicians back to their usual scheming and spinning.
We have heard a lot about Thailand lately. Everybody - left, right and centre - has been free to express an opinion, which is quite remarkable for a country often deemed not wholly democratic. But he who has helped bring water to barren farms and has worked overtime thinking up ways to keep flood-prone land dry said very little. From his work record, however, we know how worried he must have been.