In November 1951, as Bhumibol Adulyadej, 23, was heading back to Thailand to take his throne, a group of generals overthrew the royalist government and stripped the Constitution of the substantial powers it accorded the monarchy.
Bhumibol became king in 1946 but had been living in Switzerland, studying. His return home was supposed to be a celebration; it was greeted with a blow to the monarchy.
This was an inauspicious start, but it may have been a great blessing. King Bhumibol’s death on Oct. 13 concluded an extraordinary reign of seven decades, during which he arguably became one of the most popular and most respected monarchs in the world.
King Bhumibol spent his first years on the throne engaging in what looked like politically benign activities. He made public appearances with his attractive, dynamic family. He played jazz over the radio. He sponsored charities and farm projects. Like many pious young Thai men, he was briefly ordained as a Buddhist monk.
In fact, King Bhumibol was stealthily building up a reputation with his subjects: as being one of them, and caring about them, unlike those generals in government, corrupt and power mad.
By 1957, he had enough public support to make a move against Field Marshal Phibun Songkhram, who had taken power in the 1951 overthrow. He supported a royalist general and rival of Phibun, Gen. Sarit Thanarat, who seized power in a new coup.
King Bhumibol did not set out to build a representative democracy or promote the rule of law. For him, parliaments were impermanent, disposable. He may have been born in America and raised in Europe, but democracy was never his goal for Thailand. Restoring the traditional influence of the monarchy was.
General Sarit proved to be a good partner for that. He actively promoted King Bhumibol and supported his anti-poverty initiatives, burnishing the king’s image. He also began enforcing the law of lèse-majesté, muzzling any criticism of the royal family.
While General Sarit and the other generals who ruled Thailand during the Cold War lined their pockets, King Bhumibol kept working hard at development projects. His engagement reinforced the perception that he was a sovereign dedicated to his people, especially Thailand’s poorest peasants, whom the government seemed to have forgotten. For King Bhumibol, that was democracy.
Thailand was ruled by a succession of military strongmen throughout the 1960s and ’70s, spaced out by short-lived attempts at elected government. At the time that may have been justifiable: The overthrow of the monarchies in Cambodia and Laos raised existential fears for the palace in Bangkok. By the end of the 1980s, however, when the Communist wars in Indochina had largely wound down and Thailand was becoming the latest roaring Asian Tiger, this no longer made sense.
In 1992, a popular uprising ousted yet another monarchy-backed military junta. A growing number of Thais had come to believe that an elected government and stronger democratic institutions would better serve Thailand’s development.
King Bhumibol was at the peak of his popularity then, and he had a chance to steer Thailand into becoming a more stable and progressive constitutional monarchy. Overseeing such a transition also seemed crucial for the royal family itself: Many people, including within the palace, anticipated the succession after King Bhumibol with apprehension, given the crown prince’s poor reputation.
Yet King Bhumibol continued to favor alliances between the palace and the military over electoral democracy. He backed the generals whenever they obstructed efforts to modernize the Constitution or strengthen the rule of law, which happened again and again.
The military establishment tried to destabilize every elected government in the 1990s. After it became clear that Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was elected in 2001, had staying power, the generals ejected him in a 2006 palace-backed coup.
Elections were restored, but every time Mr. Thaksin’s allies have secured control of the government, and democratically, they, too, have been ousted. In 2014, Mr. Thaksin’s sister was removed from her position as prime minister: first by a court, then, in effect, by the military — and again with the palace’s support.
Today, the government of Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha refuses to give up power. It has put off elections until 2017, and drafted a new constitution that ensures the military will control any government that is elected then. Taking a cue from General Sarit, the Prayuth administration has arrested scores of people on lèse-majesté charges, designating itself as the throne’s ultimate guardian.
This is a bleak backdrop for the end of King Bhumibol’s reign. He was the model of a great king — modest, earnest and selfless, with his attention focused on the neediest. But he has left Thailand, as well as his heir, in the same situation he inherited all those years ago: in the hands of corrupt and shortsighted generals who rule however they want. And those King Bhumibol cared about the most — the Thai people — must suffer the consequences.
Paul Handley is the author of The King Never Smiles: A Biography of Thailand’s Bhumibol Adulyadej.