Making of a monarch: Thais set to part with the 'people's king'

Sally MAIRS
1 / 4
Bhumibol's image has never been more prominent than in the run-up to his cremation -- an elaborate affair expected to draw 250,000 mourners to Bangkok's old quarter

Flipping through a binder of images of Thailand's late king Bhumibol Adulyadej, Somsree pauses and pulls out her favourite: a shot from the 80s of the casually-dressed monarch sitting on a wooden bridge, his back against a truck and chatting with a villager.

Given his lofty role he did not have to travel the country, Somsree Trupsangsree says from the shop in Bangkok's old quarter where she sells portraits of the revered monarch.

"But he went there to work," the 59-year-old says, misty-eyed at the memory of Bhumibol, or Rama IX, whose funeral on Thursday will bring Thailand to a standstill.

"His hands still held a map. He sat next to the people, so down-to-earth," she added.

Like many Thais, Somsree's bond with King Bhumibol, who died a year ago aged 88 after a seven decade reign, is instinctive and intimate.

It is also grounded in a narrative tirelessly reinforced by the palace's propaganda machine.

Pictures of him, like the ones she sells, plaster homes, storefronts and billboards while memories of his good works roll nightly across palace TV broadcasts.

From formal portraits in opulent robes to snaps of a sweat-streaked sovereign trudging through jungles to document his country's needs, the late king is remembered as regal but accessible, rich but unflashy and always dedicated to the Thai people.

Bhumibol's image has never been more prominent than in the run-up to his cremation -- an elaborate affair expected to draw 250,000 mourners to Bangkok's old quarter.

Thais are still adjusting to life under an heir who now presides over the crown's immense wealth and prestige but is yet to foster the same bond with his people.

King Maha Vajiralongkorn, 65, is a more remote figure to his subjects and has spent much of his first year in power abroad, although he will be centre stage throughout the funeral.

But unvarnished discussion on either monarch is impossible inside Thailand which jails critics of the institution under one of the world's harshest royal defamation laws.

- Kingdom rebuilt -

Raised in Switzerland, Bhumibol ascended the throne aged 18 in 1946 after his elder brother Ananda Mahidol was shot dead in mysterious circumstances at the Grand Palace in Bangkok.

He was crowned four years later, inheriting a monarchy whose power was in steady decline.

By time of his death, all of that had changed.

Bhumibol left behind one of the world's richest monarchies, with the palace the pivot point of Thailand's power networks including the influential military.

"Thailand needed a king as rallying and unifying symbol and a young king found a people to rebuild a kingdom around," explained Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a politics professor at Chulalongkorn University.

A revival of antiquated palace rituals -- including prostration in his presence -- and spiritual duties gilded the throne, elevating Bhumibol to a semi-divine status.

That deification made scenes of his engagement with ordinary Thais even more remarkable to a nation awed by his work ethic.

Over years spent criss-crossing Thailand, Bhumibol seeded thousands of well-publicised royal projects in a poor, agrarian country that won him the moniker the "Development King".

The trips produced a portfolio of pictures that cast Bhumibol as a compassionate king who shrugged off the riches of his position to put his people first.

Palace PR spread the message.

"There is a lot of hagiography and officially enforced views about Thailand's traditional institutions, but it all would not have worked without King Bhumibol the way that he was," Thitinan wrote in comments to AFP.

"The king was so devoted, dedicated and diligent that people saw it and over time this became their bond."

His long reign saw the flickers of Communist rebellion extinguished with US help and repeated rounds of electoral politics unpicked by violent protest and military coups.

Yet King Bhumibol was perceived as above the fray despite his ties with the military whose repeated power grabs from fragile civilian governments he formally endorsed.

- Big shoes to fill -

Bhumibol's saintly reputation has left his heir with big shoes to fill.

The new king's colourful personal life and finances, including the recent transfer of $500 million worth of shares from a palace trust, are the subject of endless rumour.

Some analysts fear for the stability of the kingdom, with a junta at the helm of a country simmering with political divisions and the new reign in its infancy.

But criticism of the new monarch must stay behind closed doors due to the lese majeste law.

Publicly, Thais have taken the royal succession in their stride, erecting portraits of the new king around the country since he ascended the throne last year.

"This king will become our new father," Prapai Saebae, who at 90 is among the few Thais to have known life under another monarch.

"We have to respect him."