King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand

The long-reigning monarch is remembered for his steadying hand

Bhumibol Adulyadej is the ninth Chakri Dynasty King of Thailand
Bhumibol Adulyadej, the king of Thailand. Chumsak Kanoknan / Getty Images

Bhumibol Adulyadej (Dec. 5, 1927–13 Oct. 13, 2016) was the king of Thailand for 70 years. He was given the title King Bhumibol the Great in 1987, and was the ninth monarch of the East Asian country; at the time of his death, Adulyadej was world's longest-serving head of state and the longest-reigning monarch in Thai history.

Early Life

Ironically, since he was the second son born to his parents, and since his birth took place outside of Thailand, Adulyadej was never expected to rule. His reign came about only after his older brother died. Nevertheless, during his long rule, Adulyadej was a calming presence at the center of Thailand's stormy political life.

Bhumibol whose full name means "strength of the land, incomparable power," was born in a Cambridge, Massachusetts, hospital. His family was in the United States because his father, Prince Mahidol Adulyadej, was studying for a public health certificate at Harvard University. His mother, Princess Srinagarindra (née Sangwan Talapat) was studying nursing at Simmons College in Boston.

When Bhumibol was a year old, his family returned to Thailand, where his father took up an internship in a hospital in Chiang Mai. Prince Mahidol was in poor health, though, and died of kidney and liver failure in September 1929.

Schooling in Switzerland

In 1932, a coalition of military officers and civil servants staged a coup against King Rama VII. The Revolution of 1932 ended the Chakri dynasty's absolute rule and created a constitutional monarchy. Concerned for their safety, Princess Srinagarindra took her two young sons and young daughter to Switzerland the following year. The children were placed in Swiss schools.

In March 1935, King Rama VII abdicated in favor of his 9-year-old nephew, Adulyadej's older brother, Ananda Mahidol. The child-king and his siblings remained in Switzerland, however, and two regents ruled the kingdom in his name. Ananda Mahidol returned to Thailand in 1938, but Bhumibol Adulyadej remained in Europe. The younger brother continued his studies in Switzerland until 1945 when he left the University of Lausanne at the end of World War II.

Mysterious Succession

On June 9, 1946, King Mahidol died in his palace bedroom from a single gunshot wound to the head. It was never conclusively proved whether his death was murder, accident, or suicide, although two royal pages and the king's personal secretary were convicted and executed in the assassination.

Adulyadej's uncle was appointed his prince regent, and Adulyadej returned to the University of Lausanne to finish his degree. In deference to his new role, he changed his major from science to political science and law.

An Accident and a Marriage

Just as his father had done in Massachusetts, Adulyadej met his wife-to-be while studying overseas. The young king often went to Paris, where he met the daughter of Thailand's ambassador to France, a student named Mom Rajawongse Sirikit Kiriyakara. Adulyadej and Sirikit began a courtship, visiting Paris's romantic tourist sights.

In October 1948, Adulyadej rear-ended a truck and was seriously injured. He lost his right eye and suffered a painful back injury. Sirikit spent a lot of time nursing and entertaining the injured king; his mother urged the young woman to transfer to a school in Lausanne so that she could continue her studies while getting to know Adulyadej better.

On April 28, 1950, Adulyadej and Sirikit got married in Bangkok. She was 17 years old; he was 22. The king was officially coronated one week later, becoming Thailand's monarch and officially known thereafter as King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

Military Coups and Dictatorships

The newly crowned king had very little actual power. Thailand was ruled by military dictator Plaek Pibulsonggram until 1957 when the first of a long series of coups removed him from office. Adulyadej declared martial law during the crisis, which ended with a new dictatorship forming under the king's close ally, Sarit Dhanarajata.

Over the next six years, Adulyadej would revive many abandoned Chakri traditions. He also made many public appearances around Thailand, significantly reviving the prestige of the throne.

Dhanarajata died in 1963 and was succeeded by Field Marshal Thanom Kittikachorn. Ten years later, Thanom sent out the troops against huge public protests, killing hundreds of protestors. Adulyadej opened Chitralada Palace's gates to offer refuge to the demonstrators as they fled the soldiers.

The king then removed Thanom from power and appointed the first of a series of civilian leaders. In 1976, however, Kittikachorn returned from overseas exile, sparking another round of demonstrations that ended in what came to be known as "The Oct. 6 Massacre," in which 46 students were killed and 167 injured at Thammasat University.

In the aftermath of the massacre, Admiral Sangad Chaloryu staged yet another coup and took power. Further coups took place in 1977, 1980, 1981, 1985, and 1991. Although Adulyadej tried to stay above the fray, he refused to support the 1981 and 1985 coups. His prestige was damaged by the constant unrest, however.

Transition to Democracy

When a military coup leader was selected as prime minister in 1992, huge protests broke out in Thailand's cities. The demonstrations turned into riots, and the police and military were rumored to be dividing into factions. Fearing a civil war, Adulyadej called the coup and opposition leaders to an audience at the palace.

Adulyadej was able to pressure the coup leader into resigning; new elections were called, and a civilian government was elected. The king's intervention was the beginning of an era of civilian-led democracy that has continued with just one interruption to this day. Bhumibol's image as an advocate for the people, reluctantly intervening in the political fray to protect his subjects, was cemented by this success.

Adulyadej's Legacy

In June of 2006, King Adulyadej and Queen Sirikit celebrated the 60th Anniversary of their rule, also known as the Diamond Jubilee. UN Secretary General Kofi Annan presented the king with a Human Development Lifetime Achievement Award as part of the festivities. In addition, there were banquets, fireworks, royal barge processions, concerts, and official royal pardons for 25,000 convicts.

Although he was never intended for the throne, Adulyadej is remembered as a successful and beloved king of Thailand, who helped calm turbulent political waters over the decades of his long reign.