When I was a kid, December 5 was just a holiday with extra festive mood because it was close to the New Year. Adults would take us to “watch the lights” in the evening, as many places in the vicinity would be colourfully illuminated.
When I was a little older, some formality crept in – the politicians and government officials in white uniforms and their candle-lit singing of “Sadudee Maharacha”, to be precise.
Older students would write essays about the Birthday Boy. Poetic types would be working on poems. School boards would be decorated with his pictures and cute tributes by youngsters. It was both wholehearted and dutiful at the same time. Even the best young poets could hardly comprehend the sacrifices of the man in the calendar.
Once I joined The Nation, December 4 could be either easy or difficult. Easy because whatever he said could make a front-page headline, and however exciting or flashy, no picture could compete with a photo of His Majesty in a suit talking to his audience. Difficult because sometimes the broadcast wasn’t good enough to convey his every word, and if there were riddles in his statements, nobody would want to interpret them.
He always called for national unity and harmony, and often stressed the importance of living a simple yet dignified life. That certainly made good headlines, but “unity” couldn’t be highlighted below the masthead every year, could it?
It was such a simple plea. Of course, junior reporters wondered at it. “This is his day. He deserves it,” my boss would say.
In a way, it was a classic “Father’s Day”. But why not? We were his children after all, and children brought nice cards and/or garlands to their fathers, took them out for dinner and raised eyebrows or laughed at what the dads had to say. The next day we would go on our way, with the fathers’ words or actions fading in the back of our minds.
December 5s came and went. Little by little, I grew to learn that his call for a national harmony was never mere rhetoric. It took me a while to realise that the “sufficiency economy” was his genuine dream, not something made up because a man in his position “has to have something”. I started to understand why people respectfully bowed in cinemas at the end of the royal anthem, and why hundreds of thousands woke up before the birds and braved the crowds just to get a glimpse of him whenever a public audience was announced.
This year there has been a huge difference. For all of us it is the first December 5 without His Majesty Bhumibol Adulyadej, or his physical presence to be exact. But over the past few weeks, I have appreciated a whole lot more. For one thing, I have learned that the pictures and footage that I thought was plentiful over the past decades does not tell the whole story. The village visits, the gruelling treks, the camera, the maps, the frowning and the sweat always featured prominently in the documentaries or in calendars, but I have learned that we saw them not because somebody else conjured them up, but because he was truly devoted to his people.
One song, featuring children’s voices, asks why a king has to tire himself so much. You can be forgiven for not liking the fact that the song has been played over and over, but come to think of it, things repeated, no matter how good or noble, are easily overlooked. When a monarch makes his first visit to a remote village, it makes a good photo op. When a high-profile figure makes a once-in-a-lifetime trek up a mountainous path with map in hand, uttering directives, it can trigger a media frenzy. When these happen too often with the same person, they become routine.
This December 5 makes us miss, and marvel at, the routine. The “bland” documentaries featuring green shoots and new waterways cut through arid lands suddenly bring fresh perspective. I don’t know about those surrounding King Bhumibol when he showed them the maps and told them what to do, but I’m certain that he loved and was devoted to his routine. He wanted people, all people, to live happily in this nation, and that is indisputable.
We used to wish him “Happy Birthday” every December 5. We did it like all children do, our own routine, when they visit their fathers bearing hurriedly-sought gifts and swiftly-written cards, all smiles and hugs. Now that we realise to whom his happiness was attached, and know what was behind his routine, it leaves just one thing for us to do. We must honour him, for our own good, by making December 5 a truly meaningful day.