“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. It was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness. It was the spring of hope; it was the winter of despair.”
Charles Dickens’ words are a close description of two nations almost 10,000 miles apart when two young leaders from vastly different backgrounds took on the reins of power of their respective nations during the 20th century under different circumstances.
In 1946, 19-year-old prince Bhumibol Adulyadej ascended to the throne after the death of his brother. An avid photographer and artist who never intended to be the monarch of his nation was now the central figure of the greatest institution of Thailand. During his reign that lasted over 70 years, King Bhumibol was liege to 30 prime ministers, and at the time of his death last month he was the longest-reigning current head of state.
As a constitutional monarch, the king had almost no real power but was one of the greatest diplomats to ever walk this earth. During his reign, the nation was subject to countless scandals and coups. However, Bhumibol stood his ground, and with diplomacy and tact, mostly managed to come out unscathed.
He was helped by the les Majesties law, which prevented anyone from criticizing the king. This, though, wasn’t the key to his success. The people didn’t just fear him, they worshipped him, revered him and loved him. Every time the nation hurt, the king wept with them.
While I was in Thailand this year, I witnessed the high regard at which the people held Bhumibol. For most citizens, he was almost a deity and an integral part of their household. He didn’t rule them unaware of their struggles; rather, he empathized with them. The king was a uniting figure in a nation in turmoil.
Elsewhere, Fidel Castro, the son of a migrant sugarcane plantation owner, was preparing to write his name into the history books. A socialist revolutionary, Castro started off with various unsuccessful attempts to overthrow the right-wing government of Cuba that among other things earned him a stint in prison.
When he did finally succeed, he ruled through a puppet president for a while before being sworn in as the prime minister of Cuba in 1959. He went on to become the longest reigning non-royal, leading Cuba for 49 years.
Castro was a controversial figure right from the start. He was a ruthless dictator, and his execution of his political foes drew condemnation from the international community. In fact, it wasn’t Josef Stalin or Nikita Khrushchev but rather Fidel Castro who came up with the idea to threaten the U.S. with a nuclear strike.
Thousands were killed under his reign, and millions displaced.
His actions led to the end of Cuba’s relationship with the United States. At the same time, Castro was loved by many Cubans who harbored anti-capitalistic sentiments.
Despite his track record of human rights abuses, Castro’s leadership was pivotal in giving direction to Cuba for most of the 20th century. He was also a central figure in President Barack Obama’s successful attempt towards re-establishing diplomatic relations with Cuba — an act that could possibly reunite millions of Cubans with their families.
Castro’s death last week marked the end of an era for Cubans. It represents a new dawn where Cuba is working on rekindling its pre-Cold War relationship with the United States. A nation that at one point was abandoned by most Western countries is now being brought back to the fold.
Thailand, though, doesn’t seem to have a straight path to stability at this point. Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn has huge shoes to fill and must garner the influence and respect that his father
commanded right away.
The country is virtually though not officially under military rule after the abolishment of the parliament in 2014. It doesn’t help him that he is marred with controversy and does not enjoy the love of the citizens that Bhumibol did.
While Cuba faces an uncertain but hopeful future, Thailand doesn’t know what lies in store for it. No matter what it may be, lives in both these countries are never going to be the same again.
I feel that at this point, both nations have a huge challenge in maintaining stability and determining the directions they will take.
The legacy of these leaders should be a valuable case study for the rest of us. Fidel Castro was a patriot beyond compare and yet, his style and methods led to the alienation of a huge number of Cubans.
Our leaders should ensure that when they pursue their agendas, it doesn’t end up bringing similar consequences. We should look to Bhumibol and how he brought a divided nation together time and again.
While we do not know the end of either story, history will always remember these two individuals as icons of their respective nations.
The legacy of history’s two greatest leaders, beloved or not, is going to become a part of the heritage of the people for better or for worse.