Kneeling before a king: the moment that shook a nation

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
King Bhumibol brought rivals Gen Suchinda Kraprayoon (centre) and Chamlong Srimuang (left) together after unrest in 1992

The grainy footage broadcast from the Royal Palace in Bangkok on 20 May 1992 with a group of men in suits may not seem all that significant, but for many it represented a pivotal moment in Thai history.

One of the men in the video is Gen Suchinda Kraprayoon, who had earlier mounted a coup and been appointed prime minister of Thailand.

The other, Chamlong Srimuang, had led a popular pro-democracy uprising against Gen Kraprayoon's military control.

Outside, days of street protests and a military crackdown had left several civilians dead. At that time, which came to be known as Black May, it seemed like there was no bridging the divide and neither side was willing to back down.

Finally, the King Bhumibol Adulyadej summoned the two men to the palace and said to them:

"The nation belongs to everyone, not one or two specific people. Those who confront each other will all be the losers. And the loser of the losers will be the nation...

"For what purpose are you telling yourself that you're the winner when you're standing upon the ruins and debris?"

The words were simple but they resonated far beyond the room, capturing the mood of the entire country.

'Moral authority'

The footage of the men bowing and accepting his authority was the moment the king solidified his position as the final arbitrator in an often divided Thailand.

"No-one could play that role at that time, under those circumstances, other than the one person who was the king of Thailand," says Thitinan Pongsudhirak from Chulalongkorn University.

Media caption,
Jonathan Head looks back at the reign of King Bhumibol Adulyadej

It was not the first time the king had intervened, although in theory his position is seen as above politics.

In 1973, pro-democracy demonstrators were fired on by soldiers and were allowed into the palace for protection. Later the entire regime of the then Prime Minister Gen Thanom Kittikachorn collapsed.

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Image caption,
The king was seen as a monarch who had genuine affection for his country's poor

In 1981, King Bhumibol took a stand against a group of army officers who had staged yet another coup in Bangkok.

His authority stemmed from the deep love and reverence Thais held for him not only as a public figure, but as a benign father figure who they looked up to and emulated.

"He had moral authority, accumulated over many decades," says Mr Pongsudhirak.

"It was by sheer force of personality and personal lifestyle; he was seen as leading an exemplary life that made people respect him and revere him."

In his later years, the king took far fewer public stands in politics despite Thailand seemingly lurching from one crisis to another - although some say, despite his age and poor health, he was still wielding influence behind closed doors.

Image source, AP
Image caption,
The king's death has been felt deeply and personally by Thai people

In 2006, during Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra's divisive rule, the king did not publicly step in, choosing instead to urge the judiciary to solve the political stalemate.

But that image of two powerful men bowing to the king in 1992 remains etched in people's memories and is referenced at times of similar strife.

It made Thais believe that when things were spiralling into chaos, there was someone who could bring peace and order.

"He was a king that was loved and adored by all," said the statement read out on TV after the king's death by Prayuth Chan-ocha, the current prime minister who yet again found power through a coup.

"The reign of the king has ended and his kindness cannot be found anywhere else."

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