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Yet over succeeding decades, against seemingly insurmountable odds - not to mention the tide of history - Bhumibol restored a central role for the palace in Thailand and won the adoration of the vast majority of his people as the beloved "Father of the Nation". King Bhumibol Adulyadej's restoration of the power and prestige of the Thai monarchy is one of the great untold stories of the 20th century Overnight, the happy-go-lucky, gangly, and thick-spectacled Bhumibol From the day of his brother's death, the story of Bhumibol's reign developed like a tale from mythology.

After four more years in Europe studying, Bhumibol finally returned in for an opulent formal coronation. He married a vivacious blue-blooded princess, Sirikit, who would become world famous for her charm and beauty. They had four children, including one handsome boy to be heir and three daughters. A figure of modernity in a feudal-like society stuck in the s, the young king sailed, played jazz, ran his own radio station, painted expressionist oils, and frequented high-society parties. Whenever required he donned golden robes and multi-tiered crowns In June , King Bhumibol marked 60 years on the throne of Thailand, amid an outpouring of adoration from the Thai people and an impressive show of respect from other royal families around the world.

Thirteen reigning monarchs attended the celebrations in person, and 12 others sent royal representatives. The only reigning royal families not represented were those of Saudi Arabia and Nepal. The Saudi absence was due to the ill-health of the octogenarian King Abdullah bin Abdul-Aziz, officially at least, but relations between the two countries had been tarnished by a dispute over the unsolved theft of a famed blue diamond and other priceless gems from the Saudi royals in which Thailand's police and powerful establishment figures were implicated. Over several days of joyous festivities, millions of Thais wore the royal colour of yellow to show their respect.

Fireworks lit up the sky, and the assembled monarchs watched the unforgettable sight of a royal barge procession, with 52 sleek dragon-headed vessels rowed by liveried Thai oarsmen gliding down the Chao Phraya past the Grand Palace. An estimated one million people crowded into Bangkok's Royal Plaza on Friday June 9 as Bhumibol gave a public address - only his third in six decades - from a palace balcony. Many millions more watched intently on television. Later that day at the auspicious time of , hundreds of thousands who had gathered around the brightly illuminated buildings of the Grand Palace lit candles in his honour.

In a confidential U. While the Thai people's respect and reverence for the 78 year old monarch is often cited, the weekend's celebration was a rare occasion to see - and feel - the depths of this sentiment in person. In contrast to the tens of thousands who have rallied against and in support of the Thaksin government, the King's public address on Friday at [the] throne hall inspired an estimated one million Thai to brave the mid-day sun to listen to their "father" speak Much of the audience had camped out since the evening before All local television stations carried the same live feed of each event, which featured crowd shots of attendees alternately crying and smiling.

Late night television shifted to cover the opening of the World Cup, but even this event was colored by the King's celebration: a newspaper cartoon explained that most Thai people were cheering for Brazil because the Brazilians wear yellow uniforms. It was an astonishing testament to Bhumibol's achievements in the six decades since he inherited the crown at such a perilous time for the monarchy and in such tragic circumstances.

And yet even as he basked in the adoration of his people and the respect of the world, Bhumibol was acutely aware that everything he had built during his 60 years on the throne was at risk of being reduced to ruins by mounting internal and external challenges that threatened to undermine the foundations of the Thai monarchy and destroy his legacy. Bhumibol had been estranged from Queen Sirikit for two decades since she suffered a breakdown following the mysterious death of her favourite military aide.

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The king's second daughter, Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, was the overwhelming favourite of the Thai people to succeed her father, even though her gender and royal tradition seemed to render this impossible. As Boyce wrote in his cable: In a shot heavy with unintentional meaning on Friday, the television broadcast showed the unpopular Crown Prince reading a message of congratulations to the King, who was seated on the royal balcony above the Prince.

Just visible behind the King, however, was the smiling face of Princess Sirindorn - the widely respected "intellectual heir" of the monarch - chatting with her sisters and trying to take a picture of the adoring crowd below. The physical distance between the King and his legal heir far below, and his beloved daughter just behind him, captured the internal family dynamic - and the future of the monarchy - quite nicely. Besides marital strife and an underachieving wayward son, Bhumibol was also troubled by the bitter power struggle between Thaksin and Thailand's traditional elites, which was becoming increasingly divisive and dangerous: In his public remarks on Friday, the King thanked the assembled dignitaries and crowd for their congratulations and called upon the Thai people to show compassion, cooperate with each other, display integrity, and be reasonable.

In a not-so-veiled reference to the ongoing political crisis, the King stated, "unity is the basis for all Thai to help preserve and bring prosperity to the country". Prime Minister Thaksin had been fighting a rearguard action for months against a determined effort by Thai monarchists to oust him.


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His role in the celebrations was deeply ambivalent, Boyce noted: Prime Minister Thaksin was front and center for much of the festivities: greeting foreign guests, and reading a congratulatory message for the King on behalf of the caretaker government. In an unfortunate bit of timing, the television camera covering the opening ceremony on Friday panned on the PM just as he was checking his watch.

Aside from this minor gaffe - not mentioned in the newspapers, yet - the PM's personal perspective on the celebration remains unclear Thaksin recently told the Ambassador that his own popularity in the countryside is seen by the palace as threatening to the King's popular standing. After this weekend's massive, unprecedented display of public adoration for the monarch, however, one hopes that Thaksin has a firm enough grasp of reality to reconsider this idea.

Within months of the Diamond Jubilee celebrations, Thailand's smouldering tensions exploded. In September Thaksin was deposed by a military coup - the 18th attempted by Thailand's military since the country began its halting and bloody flirtation with democracy in The generals who ordered their tanks onto Bangkok's streets believed they were defending the monarchy and insisted they were acting in support of democracy against an increasingly authoritarian and mercurial prime minister who had co-opted most of the country's key institutions and subverted the rule of law. Yet the elderly men who took charge of Thailand after the coup were completely unprepared for the challenges of running a 21st century economy and totally bewildered when it came to trying to counter the machinations of a mediasavvy telecommunications tycoon with deep pockets and a determination to get even, whatever the cost.

A coup designed to crush support for Thaksin and end his influence over Thai politics forever was an abject failure. It only succeeded in wrenching an already divided country even further apart. The highstakes struggle between Thailand's most powerful figures spilled onto the streets of Bangkok, where mass protests and civil disobedience by the royalist "Yellow Shirt" followers of the People's Alliance for Democracy PAD and the broadly pro-Thaksin "Red Shirts" of the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship UDD erupted repeatedly into violent clashes and destructive efforts to sabotage the very functioning of the Thai state.

By the autumn of , when Bhumibol was admitted to Siriraj Hospital, the country was mired deep in an intractable social and political crisis with no apparent way out.. As the end of his life approached, instead of looking back with pride over his incredible achievements, Bhumibol was fretting over fears that everything he had fought to achieve during his extraordinary reign was in danger of turning into dust. All nations have their secrets and lies. There is always a gulf between the narrative constructed by those in power, and the real story. But the dissonance between Thailand's official ideology and the reality is particularly stark and troubling.

Suthep Thaugsuban, Thailand's deputy prime minister, blithely claimed in December that the cables would have no impact on the country: We don't have any secrets What happens in Thailand, we tell the media and the people. His comments could scarcely be further from the truth. Thailand is a nation of secrets, and most of the biggest secrets are those involving the Thai monarchy. The palace is at the centre of an idealized narrative of the Thai nation and of what it means to be Thai, which depicts the country as a uniquely blessed kingdom in which nobody questions the established order.

Thais are well aware that the truth is very different - they could hardly be otherwise, following the violent political crisis that has engulfed their country - and yet many continue to suspend their disbelief and, at least publicly, to profess their faith in the official myths. Most feel unable to voice the truth, due partly to immense social pressure in a society where to question the official story is to be regarded as "un-Thai", and partly to some of the strictest defamation laws in the world.

Article of the Thai Criminal Code states: "Whoever defames, insults or threatens the King, Queen, the Heir-apparent or the Regent, shall be punished with imprisonment of three to fifteen years. A law originally intended to shield the monarchy from insults and slander has become something far more: it is increasingly used to prevent any questioning of Thailand's established social and political order. The law's defenders claim that Thailand's love and reverence for its king is incomparable.

Its critics say the law has become the foremost threat to freedom of expression. Barely hidden beneath the surface of growing debate around the law and its use are the most basic issues defining the relationship between those in power and the governed: equality before the law, rights and liberties, the source of sovereign power, and even the system of government of the polity - whether Thailand is to be primarily a constitutional monarchy, a democratic system of governance with the king as head of state, or a democracy.

Most Thais remain unaware of the full story of how Bhumibol restored the power and prestige of the monarchy over the past half century. Handley's book The King Never Smiles is banned in Thailand - as is Handley himself - because he violated the taboo that forbids a critical look at the role of the palace in Thailand's modern history. As he writes in the introduction: Any journalist or academic who takes an interest in Thailand soon learns that one topic is offlimits: the modern monarchy.

Most people give in to these explanations with little argument.


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It is easy to do: nearly every Thai one meets expresses unquestioning praise for the king, or at least equivocates to the point of suggesting that there really is not much to be said: the history that is in the open is the whole of it. The result, however, is a crucial gap in modern Thai history and political analysis. Instead they have lived through military rule and the struggle against it, and through the time when the monarchy has been elevated to a sacred and inviolable status. The lack of conceptualised narratives that explain how the monarchy remains a critical element in Thai democratisation further contributes to overlooking the political role of the monarchy.

Discussion of the reality among Thais is relegated to private conversations or oblique references using coded imagery and parables.

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The truth about the palace's enormously influential role in Thai politics and economics cannot be uttered openly in public. Political and social discourse is relegated to the fringes as whisperings and innuendo. Only a handful of have been published so far. The cables begin in late , when Thaksin was at the height of his political ascendancy, and end in early when Thaksin was in exile, current Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva was in power, and Thailand was about to enter the most tragic phase of its crisis so far.

John, ambassador from until One reason above all makes the leaked U. Explaining Thai politics without reference to the role of the palace is like trying to tell the story of the Titanic without making any mention of the ship. These expressions are used as a substitute for an alleged unspeakable and unconstitutional force in Thai politics, to make the otherwise incomplete stories about politics and its manipulation slightly more comprehensible.

The leaked U. They were written by American diplomats doing their best to explain events in Thailand to the State Department in Washington. They were intended to be secret, made public only when the events they described were distant history and the people involved were long dead. Those who wrote them did not have to fear the threat of social ostracism or lengthy jail sentences if they simply tried to give a clear explanation of the most important issues facing the people of Thailand at a momentous time in their history at the start of the 21st century.

The account they give of Thailand's ongoing political crisis may not always be correct: like everybody else struggling to unravel the truth, senior U. We offer this "royal primer" mindful of the opaque nature of the institution, the difficulty in establishing absolute truths about public yet very remote royal figures, and the inherent biases of inside players, even those we have known for years several of whom recently repeated a Thai aphorism about the institution: "those who know aren't talking, and those who are talking aren't in the know".

John seems to have only realized rather late that Abhisit's instincts may not have been as progressive as they appeared, and that while he may say the right things, that does not mean that he does them. No other country has been so inextricably involved with Thailand over the past century as the United States, and this adds even more value to what the cables have to say. Thailand's relationship with the United States is complex, heavily disguised and, in many instances, actively denied by the leaders of both countries In many cases, it is difficult if not impossible to determine the extent of American influence in Thailand.

Thailand is a nation of secrets: of secret bombings and air bases during the Vietnam War, of secret military pacts and aid agreements, of secret business transactions and secret ownership of businesses and joint venture corporations. This is precisely the point; the American presence has taken on powerful cosmological, religious and even mythic overtones. The American influence on the Thai economy and polity has become a symbol of uncertainty, of men's inability to know the truth.

In multiple cables written for visiting high-level officials, John wrote that "Thailand's strategic importance to the U. The leaked cables provide a coherent and insightful account of the complexities of Thailand's crisis by respected senior U. As such, they revolutionize the study of 21st century Thailand.

But their importance goes further. The cables do not merely illuminate Thailand's history - they are also likely to have a profound impact on its future. The official culture of secrecy that has criminalized public acknowledgement of truth among Thais and prevented academic and journalistic study of fundamental issues affecting the country has been irretrievably breached. The genie cannot now be put back into the bottle. Some underwhelmed critics of the leaking of Cablegate documents have dismissed them as containing few genuine revelations - in general, they have largely tended to confirm what everybody suspected all along.

And this is to some extent true of the cables on Thailand. There are no bombshells that will stun Thais or foreign experts on Thailand who are already aware - at least privately - of the story that the cables tell. But this is missing the point. This is the paradox of public space: even if everyone knows an unpleasant fact, saying it in public changes everything. Even if most people privately suspect the truth, putting it in the public domain makes it impossible to sustain official narratives that depend on a refusal to acknowledge the reality.

For that reason, the cables may, finally, force Thailand to confront some uncomfortable facts about its past, its present, and its future. Amid scenes of an emotional Woody prostrating himself on the ground, eagerly sharing a cupcake fed to the princess's pet dog, and frequently bursting into tears, Chulabhorn told him: HM goes to sleep very late. Sometimes he cannot sleep. Sometimes he sleeps a little. Sometimes when there are problems, he would follow them up, like floods, for example, concerned about the hardship of the people. He would order [officials] to send bags of emergency supplies to the people.

When he sees on TV where are floods, where it is hot, or where people have been injured, he will give help without telling anyone. He does good without being seen indeed. His continued hospitalization since September , even when his health had seemed to be on the mend, has troubled Thais and baffled foreign observers. As Eric John wrote in February last year: The real question at this stage remains: why does he continue to be hospitalized? The stated rationale - to build up his physical strength and endurance - could be accomplished in a palace, either in Bangkok or his preferred seaside residence in Hua Hin.

Some will suspect other motives, but what those might be remain unclear. In March , many thousands of Red Shirt protesters began congregating in Bangkok for a series of mass rallies against the government of Prime Minister Abhisit. Over two tragic months in April and May, as the military moved in to try to crush the protest, 91 people were killed and more than 1, wounded in a series of violent clashes between Thai troops, Red Shirts and shadowy groups of armed men known as "Black Shirts" or "Ronin warriors" with unclear affiliation to Thaksin and the protest leaders.

For weeks the Red Shirts occupied an area of five star hotels and luxury malls in the centre of the capital, a few miles east of Bhumibol's riverside hospital. When soldiers finally stormed the barricades around the Red encampment, on May 19, dozens of buildings in Bangkok were set ablaze in an apparently well-planned wave of arson attacks. The months that followed saw a determined crackdown by Thailand's resurgent military and the Abhisit administration.

A state of emergency was imposed in several areas,. Most Red Shirt leaders were imprisoned. Community radio stations in rural areas where Red support is strong were shut down. The millions of rural and urban poor who form the main support base for the Red Shirt movement were left seething with anger and a bitter sense of injustice. Respected journalists and academics have been among those targeted. Among his alleged offences was providing a link on his website to a digital version of The King Never Smiles.

In such a climate, it became clear that the article I was writing on Thailand, based on the full set of more than 3, leaked U. Even though U. Reuters has hundreds of staff in Thailand, and there were concerns they could be put at risk. Like all major foreign media organizations, the company has had to self-censor its reporting from Thailand for years, to protect its staff and the revenues it earns in Thailand.

It was an understandable decision. But for me, there could be no turning back. From the day I first arrived in Bangkok 11 years ago as deputy bureau chief for Reuters, I was - like most visitors before me over the centuries - beguiled by the luminous beauty and vibrancy of Thai culture, and moved and inspired by the graciousness, charm and warmth of most Thai people. No other place in the world means more to me, and nowhere else has broken my heart more often.

It just became impossible to ignore all the everyday horror and human misery that are allowed to flourish in Thailand alongside so much to cherish and admire. Thailand needs to escape the wretched cycle of corruption, conspiracies and coups that has blighted its modern history. A first step is to clearly acknowledge what is happening in Thailand today. Thailand's people deserve to know the truth, and they deserve to be allowed to express what they believe, instead of facing jail or exile for simply saying things that cannot be denied.

It also apparently does not believe the majority of voters should be able to elect their own representatives and determine the future course of Thai society. Politics in Thailand has become more and more like a badly acted television drama series. The actors all know that the lines they are speaking and the roles they are playing while the cameras are rolling are not real: the reality is quite different.

The audience knows it too. We allow ourselves to imagine it is real, to enjoy the show. Thailand needs to start dealing with reality. Especially now, when the whole country is convulsed by anger and pain and anxiety, and when so many dark clouds are gathering on the horizon. Everybody knows that a storm is coming. The only question is how much time is left before it hits. What happens then will fundamentally define what kind of country Thailand becomes in the 21st century.

When I realized I would not be able to say what needs to be said about Thailand as a Reuters journalist, I began making copies of all the U. Technology has made the theft of secret information much easier than it used to be: an eccentric Thai writer and publisher called K. He saw his chance when the library was under renovation and the manuscripts taken out of the palace and entrusted to the care of Prince Bodinphaisansophon, head of the Department of Royal Scribes.

Craig Reynolds tells the story in Seditious Histories: Contesting Thai and Southeast Asian Pasts: The accessibility of these manuscripts to Kulap sparked his curiosity, and out of his love for old writings, he paid daily visits to admire the most ancient books in the kingdom.

Naturally, he desired copies for himself, his passion for old books guiding him around any obstruction. With a manuscript in his possession, Kulap then rowed across the river to the Thonburi bank to the famous monastery, Wat Arun or Wat Claeng. There, in the portico of the monastery, Kulap spread out the accordion-pleated text its entire length, and members of the Royal Pages Bodyguard Regiment, hired by Kulap to assist in this venture, were then each assigned a section of the manuscript. In assembly-line fashion, they managed to complete the transcription within the allotted time.

Kulap then rowed back across the river to return the original, with the prince apparently none the wiser. On June 3, , I resigned from Reuters after a year career so that I could make this article freely available to all those who wish to read it. Reuters was explicitly opposed to my actions and sought to prevent me writing it while I was employed there. They have also informed me several times of the potential consequences of making unauthorized use of material that came into my possession through my work as a Reuters journalist.

I have chosen to disregard those warnings, but it is important to make clear that Reuters made every reasonable effort to stop me publishing this story, and some frankly rather unreasonable efforts too. Responsibility for the content and the consequences of my article is mine, and mine alone. Besides having to leave a job I loved with a company I had believed in, it also seems likely that I can never visit Thailand again. That feels unbearably sad. But it would have been infinitely sadder to have just accepted defeat and given up trying to write something honest about Thailand.

My duty as a journalist, and as a human being, is to at least try to do better than that. What follows is a rough first draft of the truth. One inescapable and traumatizing fact haunts 21st century Thailand, and not even the country's most potent myths have the power to tame it: Bhumibol Adulyadej, the beloved Rama IX, is approaching the end of his life.

Frail and hospitalized, he is already just a shadow of his former self. Whether or not the prince becomes Rama X, the royal succession will be a time of profound national anxiety and uncertainty far more shattering and painful even than the tragic events of the past five years of worsening social and political conflict. The looming change in monarch and the prolonged political crisis gripping Thailand are - of course inextricably intertwined. A large number of parallel conflicts are being fought at all levels of Thai society, in the knowledge that Bhumibol's death will be a game-changing event that will fundamentally alter longstanding power relationships among key individuals and institutions, and may also totally rewrite the rules of the game.

Ahead of the succession, the leading players are fighting to position themselves for of the inevitable paradigm shift. In this twilight struggle are locked opposing webs of partisans and vested interests both for and against what Thaksin has done to Thailand.

The old establishment confronts the popular demands and expectations that the age of globalization has wrought, and strains to find ways to render the new voices irrelevant. In July , it was the task of Eric G. John, the American ambassador in Bangkok and a former deputy assistant secretary of state for Southeast Asia, to write a scenesetter for a particularly important visitor: his boss, U. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the woman in charge of the foreign policy of the most powerful nation in the world. The past year has been a turbulent one in Thailand.

Court decisions forced two Prime Ministers from office, and twice the normal patterns of political life took a back seat to disruptive protests in the streets. The red-shirted United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship UDD , followers of Thaksin, disrupted a regional Asian Summit and sparked riots in Bangkok in mid-April after Thaksin, now a fugitive abroad in the wake of an abuse of power conviction, called for a revolution to bring him home.

While both yellow and red try to lay exclusive claim to the mantle of democracy, neither is truly democratic in intent or tactics. The current PM, Abhisit Vejjajiva While Thailand in has been more stable than in , mid-April red riots aside, it is the calm in the eye of a storm. Few observers believe that the deep political and social divides can be bridged until after King Bhumibol passes and Thailand's tectonic plates shift. Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn neither commands the respect nor displays the charisma of his beloved father, who greatly expanded the prestige and influence of the monarchy during his 62 year reign.

Some question whether Vajiralongkorn will be crowned King, as Bhumibol desires. Nearly everyone expects the monarchy to shrink and change in function after succession. How much will change is open to question, with many institutions, figures, and political forces positioning for influence, not only over redefining the institution of monarchy but, equally fundamentally, what it means to be Thai. It is a heady time for observers of the Thai scene, a frightening one for normal Thai.

The political crisis that has riven Thailand since the start of Thaksin's struggle with the establishment can only be understood in this context, as John explains in cable 09BANGKOK Bhumibol's eventual passing will be a watershed event in Thai history. It likely will unleash changes in institutional arrangements in Thailand, affecting the size and role of the monarchy, its relationship to the elected government and the military, and the roles of both of the latter, unmatched since the transition from absolute to constitutional monarchy, which nevertheless retained the monarchy at the core of Thai national identity.

Over the past year, nearly every politician and analyst, when speaking privately and candidly, regardless of political affiliation or colored perspective, has identified succession as the principal political challenge facing Thailand today, much more important than normal political issues of coalition management or competition for power, which clearly do factor into the mix of political dynamics It is entirely possible King Bhumibol will return to his Hua Hin seaside palace several hours south of Bangkok in the coming days and live quietly for many years - postponing the day of reckoning and change that will inevitably come.

In the meantime, the bustle of normal politics and changing societal attitudes will continue apace, while Thais keep a wary eye on the health of their ailing King. Duncan McCargo, professor of Southeast Asian politics at the University of Leeds, begins his study Thailand: State of Anxiety in Southeast Asian Affairs in with a reference to an obsession that swept the nation for magical amulets originally created by policeman in the southern town of Nakhon Si Thammarat.

They became so wildly popular that in April a woman was killed in a stampede at the temple where they were made, and a crime wave spread worsening havoc through the town as Thais unable or unwilling to buy the amulets decided to try stealing them instead. She was writing about the national anxiety epitomized by the extraordinary cult of Jatukham Ramathep amulets which seized Thailand in late and the first half of Deeply uneasy about the economy, politics, and the royal succession, Thais bought tens of millions of these much-hyped amulets to protect them from adversity The fevered collective enthusiasm for monarchy seen during and had a darker downside, testifying to growing national anxiety about the royal succession The inability of the palace to address public anxiety about the succession threatened to undermine the glory of the Ninth Reign.

The Yellow Shirts were initially a broad-based and relatively good-humoured alliance from across the ideological and political spectrum that drew together royalists and liberals, radical students and middle-class aunties, progressive activists and patrician establishment patriarchs, united in opposition to the increasingly baleful influence of Thaksin Shinawatra; over the years they morphed into a proto-fascist mob of hateful extremists addicted to the bloodcurdling rhetoric of rabble- rousing demagogues. The Yellow Shirts proclaim their undying love for the king, but it is the flipside of that love that has transformed them into a baying apocalyptic death cult: they are utterly petrified about what will happen once Rama IX is gone.

As time went on, the PAD became captives of their own rhetoric, unable to converse with others, let alone back down or make compromises. Rather than seek to build broad support for their ideas, core leaders made vitriolic speeches This self-presentation had distinctly cultic overtones The market jitters and selling frenzy on the trading floor demonstrates just how sensitive investor confidence in Thailand is to news about the King's health.

This volatility creates a wealth of opportunities for mischief in the market, particularly for profit-seekers and bargain-hunters. The veracity of rumors is very difficult to track down, but their impact on the market, true or not, is clear. The extent of the fear and turmoil roiling Thailand in the final years of Bhumibol's reign can be baffling for foreign observers.

In Britain, Queen Elizabeth II is fairly widely respected even among those who are indifferent or opposed to the monarchy, and few people are greatly enthused about the prospect of Prince Charles becoming king, but the country is hardly convulsed by frantic worry about the succession.

Quite clearly, Bhumibol is no ordinary constitutional monarch. Bhumibol's ascent to the throne of Thailand was so improbable that it would strain credibility in a work of fiction. His mother Sangwal was born in to impoverished parents, a Thai-Chinese father and a Thai mother, in Nonthaburi near Bangkok. By the time she was 10 both her parents and an elder sister and brother had all died, leaving her an orphan with one younger brother. Through some fortunate family connections she moved into the outer orbit of the royal court, and after an accident with a sewing needle she was sent to stay in the home of the palace surgeon who encouraged her to become a nurse.

She met Bhumibol's father, Mahidol Adulyadej - 69th of the 77 children of Rama V, King Chulalongkorn - in Boston in after winning a scholarship to further her nursing studies in the United States. If anybody had expected Mahidol to get anywhere near the pinnacle of the royal line of succession, his marriage to a ThaiChinese commoner would never have been approved. But he was far down the list.

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Bhumibol was born in Brookline, Massachusetts, in , the couple's third child after a daughter, Galyani Vadhana, and a son, Ananda Mahidol. His name means "Strength of the Land, Incomparable Power". By the time Bhumibol was born, his father had been catapulted into contention for the throne, after several other claimants died young and childless. But Mahidol was studying medicine and wanted to be a doctor; he had no interest in becoming king. In December , the family returned to Siam. Mahidol hoped to practise as a doctor in Bangkok, but palace law decreed that his royal status meant he could not touch any part of a patient's body apart from the head.

Trying to escape restrictions he considered ridiculous, he went to work at the American Presbyterian Hospital in the northern town of Chiang Mai. Shortly afterwards the chronic kidney problems he had suffered all his adult life flared up again. He died in September in Bangkok, aged This put the young Ananda first in line for the throne, with Bhumibol next. Even then, it seemed very unlikely that Bhumibol would ever rule Thailand. King Prajadhipok, Rama VII, was still a young man, and there were doubts about how long long the monarchy would last in a modernising Thailand and a changing world in which many royal dynasties were being swept from power.

There were several tables of Korean women, smiling and shouting for attention, trays piled with pickled cabbage. One afternoon in Ashgabat, I caused a diplomatic incident. I had been invited by the United States Embassy to give a harmless pep talk to some writers and journalists. About thirty men and women showed up at a sort of boardroom in a hotel that the Embassy used as an annex. They were of every physical type: stylish women in velvet dresses with the impassive faces of nomads, dark beaky men in heavy coats, young mustached men in suits, Russian aunts in blue dresses, carrying satchels, some hefty warrior types braced behind the chairs, their arms folded, a furtive man fussing with a big shoulder bag, and two pale young women, slender Slavic beauties with lank blond hair and blue eyes, standing shyly by the wall.

I spoke for about twenty minutes, through an interpreter.

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At the end, there was polite applause. The man who had been fussing with his shoulder bag had taken out an expensive camera and begun snapping pictures.


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I made a tactful reply, commending the verses of the Koran encouraging hospitality, which I, as a traveller among Muslims, appreciated, and quickly moved to the next question. And she went on to ask how she might get her poems translated into English and published in the United States. I referred her to the fellow who had translated her question. What do you think of that? A lot of older people will have to work longer because the government pension fund is running out of money.

The qualifying age for Social Security has risen to sixty-seven. They were workers. This is a wealthy country, but they are poor. The government has done this to us. You have all the facts. Before this could be translated, the photographer leaped forward and snapped pictures from several angles, his shoulder bag bumping against his hip. Then an American security officer took three strides toward the photographer, grasped his coat in one hand, snatched the camera with the other, and frog-marched the man to the back of the room and outside.

This all happened so fast that the photographer did not have time to protest, though I heard him howl as the door slammed. I elaborated on this subject, and then declared the meeting over. The room emptied quickly. But the harm was done. I had allowed a political dissident a forum.

It turned out that this was the first anyone had heard of his underground party. And there might be collateral damage, so to speak, because the other writers and journalists who had been quietly invited many of them unpopular with the government had all been photographed. I had been impressed by his deftness: without hesitating, almost without creating a scene, he had plucked the man and his camera from the room.

The photographer had been a government spy, he said. In the corridor, he had erased the images from the camera. And the next day the Deputy Chief of Mission of the U. Embassy in Ashgabat was summoned to a meeting with the minister. Who is this Paul Theroux? What are the details of his visa? Does he have permission to speak? When is he leaving? I had the answers to some of these questions. My visa was in order, and in a few days I planned to take the train to the eastern city of Mary, to see the ruins at Merv.

Then the train to Turkmenabat and the Uzbekistan border and, I hoped, another train. I spent the rest of my time in Ashgabat doing what Turkmen like doing most: sitting on a lovely carpet, eating my way down a spit of lamb kebab or through a mound of rice plov.

Always there was hard bread, sometimes dumplings; usually there was tea, sometimes wine. Now and then, these meals were served in homes that stood in empty fields, like a stage set for a Beckett play—a house in a wasteland, everything around it bulldozed to make room for a prestige project or a gold statue. But having Turkmenbashi as an enemy was also helpful, because when Western diplomats tried to explain my predicament to me they were often revealing about his quirks.

Turkmenbashi had banned local human-rights groups and religious groups and environmental groups—all the more readily if they received assistance from foreign partners. He banters with his ministers and humiliates them. They have no future here. A former exchange student to the U. Heroin addicts were numerous, and their need for money caused crime. Turkmenistan was also a transshipment route of drugs from Afghanistan to Russia. Afghan hashish was freely available.

Early one evening, I took the overnight train from Ashgabat to Mary. When I found that the sleeper ticket cost the equivalent of four dollars, I became anxious: this was the price of half a dozen melons at the bazaar, and a ticket so cheap boded ill for a long journey. I guessed that the train would be dirty and crowded, a mass of people travelling in the light of a few twenty-five-watt bulbs, and it gave me no satisfaction to be right.

The railway station itself was lovely, a classic Soviet building from the nineteen-fifties, very clean and patrolled by soldiers with machine guns.

Choose Sides? You Bet. But Antifa and Fascism Are the Same Side.

Yet no passenger was searched, and whereas travellers on Turkmenistan roads were subject to roadblocks and the arbitrary search-and-seizure rules of the security forces, train travellers, it seemed, were beneath notice. I sat in my four-berth compartment with a soldier in a dark uniform, a student of about twenty-two, and an old man with a long chin beard, wearing traditional Turkmen dress—a cylindrical black lambskin hat and a long brown cloak over a smock, one of those national costumes which seem eternal and comfortable everywhere, in all seasons.

He saw me and began to address me, using the student as a translator. I heard the whistle blow. The train slowly pulled out of Ashgabat Sta-tion, and within minutes we were in the desert. The old man was delivering a monologue. When he got to the moon, he heard a strange noise. When he came back to earth, the scientists in America analyzed it, and they came to think that it was the voice of the Prophet Muhammad. It seemed to me like a Turkmen version of a Pat Robertson story: divine intervention in an unlikely place, resulting in a beatific conversion, the sun breaking through the clouds.

Instead of Jesus speaking to a searcher, it was Muhammad, but it came to the same thing. Later, an Arabic scholar told me that a persistent urban myth in the Middle East is that Neil Armstrong—sometimes confused with Louis Armstrong—converted to Islam. The best tactic on this overnight train journey, it seemed to me, was to get along, which meant staying off the subject of religion.

As I was thinking this, the old man was still talking to the student. No one has ever come back from the dead to tell us anything, so how can we know? Then the grass turns brown. Then the grass dies. Then it grows again. It turns green and gets tall. The old man was still staring, one skinny gnarled hand in his lap, the other gripping the long gray beard attached to his chin. He had been born near Mary. He had not gone to school. As a boy, he had worked in the fields; he had picked cotton his whole life. He had married a woman from his clan and had four children.

He challenged me to guess his age. He looked about seventy, so I guessed sixty. He laughed and said that he was fifty. At my farewell party in Ashgabat, I had been given a bag of food for the train—spinach pies, mushroom fold-overs, sticky buns, all wrapped in paper. In the dim light of the compartment, I unwrapped it and handed it around—to Selim, the student, the young soldier, and a hanger-on gaping at the doorway.

Selim asked a question. All Muslims wash before they pray. When water is unavailable, they use sand or dust to perform the dry ablution called tayammum , making an elaborate business of rubbing the hands and arms, and slowly wiping the face, massaging the eyes, the cheeks, the jaw, then drawing the hands downward. Selim went through this ritual as the train rushed across the desert, rattling the windows and the door handles.

Then he prayed, for almost a full minute, his eyes closed, speaking into the stifling air of the compartment. When he was finished, I asked him what he had said. Was it a standard prayer or had he improvised it? He said that it was improvised for the occasion. I thanked the friend who gave it to us. I wished the friend blessings on his journey. A knock at the compartment door: the conductor was handing out sheets.

Though it was not late, the light was so bad that there was nothing to do but sleep. We each lay down in a bunk. After the feeble light was switched off, I could see the dark plains passing, the low scrub, the boulders glowing, smooth and bluish in the moonlight. Hours later, still in the dark, we approached the town of Mary. The others were awake and yawning. Ashgabat had been hot and dry. Wishing to lighten my bag, I had given my sweater to Mamed and my scarf to Gulnara. Approaching Mary, I gave my heavy long-sleeved polo shirt to the student, who had been so helpful.

It costs five thousand manat. A shared taxi costs ten thousand manat. But I say, better to take the bus and give the extra money to my children. In ancient times, the area I was now in had been called Khorasan; Merv was its noble capital. But for centuries it had been an imperial metropolis, a center of learning, a place of citadels, a walled city, or several of them. What was left of it lay in the hard glitter of the Asian desert, about an hour up the railway line, near a town and a station called Bairam Ali, which dated from , not long after the Russian empire took control of the region.

Mary—the adjacent city and provincial capital—was half boomtown, half slum: filled with the requisite gold statues and portraits, white marble government buildings, prestige projects an opera house, luxury hotels, a pointless flyover , and boulevards almost empty of traffic. Off the big thoroughfares, on backstreets, were low decaying houses and Soviet tenements. Shop Books. Read an excerpt of this book!

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