Valaiporn Pinyo understands the grief many Brits are feeling about the death of their queen whose funeral took place on Monday, Sept. 19.
The owner of Yum Thai Restaurant in Forest Park grew up seeing the face of King Bhumibol Adulyadej (Rama IX) everywhere — on paper money, banners hung from street lamps, and TV. Like Queen Elizabeth, the Thai monarch reigned for 70 years, and like the British royal, Rama IX was respected if not loved by most of his subjects.
When Pinyo sees the line of ordinary British citizens waiting to pay their respects to their late monarch stretching for five miles, she recalled how Thai people of all walks of life would kneel as the vehicle carrying his body passed through their communities.
Pinyo grew up in Thailand and immigrated to the U.S. at the age of 24. Although she has lived in this country for 29 years, she still speaks Thai better than English and at least part of her heart is still in the town in southern Thailand that she long ago.
“It’s difficult for Americans to understand monarchy,” she began. “I know him my whole life. He had a bond with the Thai people partly because of his long reign but partly because of his decades of service, leadership and how he communicated with the Thai people.”
Like Elizabeth II, Rama IX had the common touch, the ability to get along with and appeal to ordinary people. For example, in traditional Thai culture, you are supposed to keep your head below the head of people who are your superiors, especially the king. But there is a famous picture of King Bhumibol squatting in a farmer’s field to examine his crop.
Pinyo said what she felt about Rama IX is respect and love. “When you meet someone like him,” she explained, “he was not only my king but a good human being.”
She recalled the time huge floods ravaged the Thai countryside and the water was so deep his Land Rover was not able to get through to a remote village. He had his bodyguards tie a rope around him so that, when he waded through the water to get to his people, the current would not sweep him away.
Chauwarin Tuntisak, the president of St. Paul Thai Lutheran Church on Dixon Street in Forest Park, came to the U.S. back in 1978 and has a less idealized picture in his mind of the king who died six years ago.
“When I grew up in Thailand,” he said, “I was taught to respect and obey elders and authority with no questions asked — living aboard, I see different things. I am very sure he was a good man and loved by many people and did many good things for people. I, however, only saw and heard about him via newspaper and television.”
Living in this country for most of his life has changed Tuntisak’s perspective on the culture in which he grew up, but so has being part of the 1% of Thai people who are Christian. “I never had a life-changing experience with the king,” he explained, “like I have with the divine Christ.”
Sasin Tuangjaruwinai is a 24-year-old resident of Forest Park who views Rama IX in particular and the monarchy in general from an even more skeptical point of view, who is his boss at a high-end antique store in the city called Golden Triangle.
“I was born in Bangkok,” he explained, “and have lived in the U.S. for six years. Because there was no internet available when I was growing up, I feel like I was propagandized, because the media was controlled by one group of people. I also think the law of 112 [in Thailand, it is a crime, according to Section 112 of the Thai Criminal Code, to defame, insult, or threaten the monarch of Thailand] is shutting people from talking about the monarchy.”
Pinyo noted that King Bhumibol was born in Boston while his father was doing graduate work there. Perhaps that exposure to Western (farang) culture made it difficult to bear the burden of playing the traditional role of the head of state in his homeland.
“I actually feel sad for him,” said Tuangjaruwinai. “He looked like he didn’t have peace in his life.”
Doug Van Tress, 60, is a farang who, as Tuntisak’s business partner, has been to Thailand many, many times and therefore has a unique perspective on the late king.
“When he passed,” Van Tress said, “I was somewhat sad. I was definitely moved by his example of how he lived his life. I admired him. I felt he was a great leader and advocate for his people, a noble man.”
He thought Rama IX was more of a blessing than a curse.
“Anytime a leader is wise, beneficent, far-seeing, that is good for us all. He was an aristocratic man but could think beyond the interests of his class. Definitely good for Thailand. A model.”
Pinyo added, “I was born in monarchy and have lived in democracy, so I see the best of both worlds.”