A Nation in Mourning
A little over two weeks ago, His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej, King Rama IX, died after many years of illness, and after seventy years as ruler of the Kingdom of Thailand. He was the world’s longest reigning monarch and is now followed in that title by Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom – but unlike her he assumed a throne of a very, very young constitutional monarchy.
Until 1932 Thailand was an absolute monarchy. The king ruled. And that was it.
But in 1932 His Majesty King Rama VII signed a new constitution that changed Thailand from an absolute monarchy to a democratic constitutional monarchy – much like the monarchies in the UK, Holland and many other European countries – but only eighty or so years ago, so the democratic state of Thailand is just eighty years old.
I dislike those who criticise Thailand or its military coups or political troubles over the last eighty years as it struggles to become a modern democratic nation. The United Kingdom – so-called birthplace of democracy – has seen civil wars, executions of monarchs, scandalous divorces and remarriages of members of the royal family – but thanks to the long-reigning monarchy of Elizabeth II, the nation continues to be strong and draws its strength from many centuries of history and tradition.
The USA has had two hundred years of democracy and now produces as a Presidential possibility Donald Trump. Words – or emoticons – fail me here.
It is said that a week is a long time in politics. Eighty years in Thailand is thus a very very long time.
The Royal Family
His Majesty was born in the USA in 1927 and became King of Thailand at the age of nineteen after the unexplained death in 1946 of his elder – and much loved – brother, King Ananda Mahidol, Rama VIII. Bhumibol Adulyadej was crowned King in 1950. He is survived by his wife, Queen Sirikit, and his four children: Princess Ubolratana, Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, Crown Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, and Princess Chulabhorn.
In 1972 His Majesty confirmed that his son, HRH Maha Vajiralongkorn, would be his successor, and last week the Prime Minister confirmed that the Crown Prince will succeed His Majesty.
During his seventy-year reign, King Bhumibol was served by some thirty Prime Ministers, of whom the most recent and current is former army general HE Prayut Chan-o-cha. General Prayut became PM following the army coup in 2014 and many Thais and many non-Thais consider him to be an excellent and stabilising influence on the Kingdom as it moves forward from the troubled Red Shirt / Yellow Shirt / Thaksin / Yingluk times of recent years, and forges its way ahead with a new constitution (the draft was approved by 61% in a recent referendum), a new style of government and a new monarch.
The government has declared a twelve-month period of official mourning for the death of His Majesty, with his cremation likely to take place in late-2017 once proper arrangements have been made for this important event, and with HRH the Crown Princess in charge of arrangements for the funeral pyre. Long delays between cremations – and coronations – is not unusual in the Kingdom, as so many traditional and Buddhist diktats have to be observed.
While the Crown Prince has asked the Kingdom for time to mourn the death of his father, it is likely that he will be pronounced the new king quite soon, although his official coronation is unlikely to take place until the year-long period of mourning is completed. In the interim, ninety-two-year-old and much-revered HE General Prem Tinsulanonda, formerly PM, and formerly President of the Thai Privy Council (and for whom the school where I worked for many years was named) is acting as Regent.
In the meantime, what is happening here?
There has been a severe crackdown on any websites that may be deemed disloyal to the royal family, as Thailand has strict lèse majesté rules, and as we enter what may be troublesome times. The man who is to become the new king is not well-known to most foreigners as he has spent some years living in Europe, but he was a central and supportive focus in the funerary observations following the King’s death two weeks ago. He was also accompanied or assisted on many occasions by his sister, the Crown Princess, a constant supporter and assistant to their father the king during his many years of travelling and working in the remote areas of Thailand.
Hundreds of thousands have visited the Grand Palace in Bangkok, where HM’s body is lying in state. Humble food vendors are offering free snacks and there is a huge logistics operation in place to serve and transport and accommodate those who wish to pay respect to the late King. Bangkok – and the whole of Thailand – has turned black as people don black (or white or grey) clothes in mourning and as government buildings and schools and many private offices drape black and white bunting along their fences, and with black and white devotional shrines to His Majesty and condolence books for passers-by to sign. Some of these are quite simple but others – such as the one in Central Chidlom department store – are superb displays of florists’ art with massed white chrysanthemums and white orchids interspersed with flickering candles and festoons of black and white drapery focusing attention on His Majesty’s portrait as centrepiece of the display.
I saw a young man at the service station where I filled my car today. He had had his hair cut in a very clever way with long and short patches very effectively showing a ghostly portrait of the king. Many others are having the king’s portrait tattooed on their bodies to show that they feel part of this important man’s reign.
Most people – even the Chinese tourists! – are wearing black or white or grey clothing, but there have been reports that market and stall holders have boosted their prices by up to 300% for “official” black garments. I have just come back from a few days in Bangkok, where virtually everyone in the trains, on the streets and in stores is in black. There is a stylish – and very nice T-shirt I hope to buy: a simple black shirt with a “9” in the Thai script on the front. King Bhumibol was our last king – Rama IX.
Many public events and television or radio shows have been cancelled or deferred. We have an official twelve-month period of mourning, and an interim thirty-day period of strict mourning. I went to a superb concert on the day of HM’s death – at the end of which his death was announced – and the subsequent concerts and competitions of the international music festival were cancelled. Many websites’ home pages are no longer in colour – simply black and white – and roadside digital advertising screens are no longer blaring out advertisements for Honda motorbikes, but are showing quiet and sedate images of His Majesty’s life. The Bangkok Post has just republished an eight part special spread celebrating the eight decades of the king’s life and a new book is due to be published this weekend.
King Bhumibol was an exceptional monarch who – although having no executive powers – achieved so much and gave so much to the people of Thailand.
His reign covered many fields and he will be remembered for the Royal Projects (designed at least in part to give opium farmers better and safer and more rewarding crops to grow), the “monkey cheek” plans to help manage Central Thailand’s annual floods, the 30:30:30:10 ratio for subsistence farmers (30% for water catchment, 30% for rice production, 30% for orchards, herb and vegetable gardens, 10% for buildings and roads) and for his music and even for his inventions: he designed and patented a simple water aerator which subsequently won numerous awards.
Possibly a fitting final statement was spoken by Marc Antony in Act III of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar:
- He’s left you all his walkways — in his private gardens and newly planted orchards — on this side of the Tiber River. He’s left them to you and to your heirs forever — public pleasures in which you will be able to stroll and relax. Here was a Caesar! When will there be another like him?
- Events: October 2016
- Text © Christopher Hall 2016. All images from Internet
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