The King Is Dead, and Thailand’s Storybook Monarchy Might Be Next
As Thailand mourns its revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the public braces for an uncertain future.
BANGKOK — If it weren’t for the sea of black, it would have been easy to mistake the king’s cremation ceremonies for a family day out. Even in the pouring Bangkok rain, families were laughing and joking, officemates chatting as they waited in line, and schoolkids gossiping as they sheltered under building eaves. Volunteers in yellow kerchiefs — a splash of color amid the obligatory black of mourning — pushed wheelchairs for those too old to walk, manned nurses’ stations, and gave out water.
It had been just over a year since the 88-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej died — or, as the language reserved only for the royal family has it, “returned to heaven.” During that time, his body had been lying in state in a closed coffin behind the kol, a great golden urn; in the past, his remains would have been in the urn itself, sloughing off flesh in preparation for the cremation while Buddhist monks chanted prayers for his soul, but his mother, a nurse, had dictated a more hygienic practice a generation ago. As the kol was borne by carriage to the cremation site through the streets early that morning, the crowds, many of whom had marked out their spot two nights before, prostrated themselves.
In the wet afternoon, we walked with the crowd along the road leading to one of the nine replica cremation pyres where mourners could make offerings. Gold-framed pictures of the king were everywhere: Here, he was boat building, taking photographs, conducting jazz orchestras. In one picture, he was water-skiing bare-chested as a young man, in another decked in yellow Buddhist robes, head haloed. (The king spent 15 days as a monk in 1956, a Thai tradition after the death of an elderly relative.) Loudspeakers broadcast sutras chanted for the king’s soul. The monks were Buddhist, the traditions Hindu, but the religion truly on display here was monarchism, with the late king as its avatar and savior.
The king’s good deeds abounded: talking to the poor, directing countryside renewals, instructing students. Not pictured were his political interventions, occasionally on behalf of the military, sometimes keeping a fragile democracy afloat. By the time of the 2014 seizure of power by the current ruling junta, he had been far too frail to act. Along the urn’s procession route, a row of truncheon-wielding police blocked the way to the 1932 Democracy Monument. Their presence was noticeably heavier than at any point along the route, perhaps cautious of the possibility for protest gestures at a site that had been a locus for political uprisings since the 1970s.
Suthiporn Dangprachun, a 27-year-old shop owner, was mixing fruit punch for his 6-year-old son to distribute to the mourners. “I saw all those thirsty people coming past, and I thought it would be a meritorious deed to help them.… The king? He was a role model to all of us, like a father.” Not everyone was so altruistic; hawkers were doing a brisk trade in snacks and royal memorabilia. “Well, the shop is still open,” Dangprachun said. “The clothes aren’t free!”
The paternal virtue of the king was a constant mantra that day. “The king was everything to us — he was like a father,” mourners repeated over and over again when asked what the king had meant to them. Like all good liturgies, it was repeated across generations. Roughly the same words were spoken by schoolgirls and grandfathers alike, sincere and unquestioned. A cluster of local teenage volunteers — Fern, Dream, Knight, Kao, Arm, and Pao — echoed the sentiment in unison, like a choir.
But when we asked about what, exactly, the king had done for them, there was a moment of puzzlement, and then the same answers every time: “Well, there were the visits to the countryside and the ‘sufficiency economy.’” The king’s countryside trips were part of a 1960s and 1970s anti-communist campaign, dating from well before these kids were born, the concept of the “sufficiency economy” another 1970s buzzword dragged back up in 1997 to remind Thais to be happy with their lot, even amid the financial crisis. Yet these truisms had long ago taken on the same status as the British queen mother’s East End visits during the Blitz, endlessly cited as examples of royal virtue mixed with the common touch.
Nonbelievers in the cult of the monarchy were voting with their feet, staying indoors — in whatever colors they liked — and watching movies or attempting to browse the internet, though virtually every site was grayed out. One woman, forgetting the day, accidentally strayed outside in red only to be driven back home by her neighbors’ disapproving glares. But for many Thais, their faith in the king is something like the American Bible Belt’s faith in Jesus — sincerely heartfelt but expressed through ritual words, not theological reasoning.
Others had more concrete rationales. “My grandfather came from China,” said one man in his 30s. Yet he said he never felt like an outsider. “Everyone born in Thailand under the king’s reign, we are all Thai.” That sense of unification is powerful, especially at a time when ethnic divisions slice through many of Thailand’s neighbors, especially bordering Myanmar. “We are trying to give 10 percent of our income to charity now,” commented his wife, “to follow the example of the king.”
That sense of unity has been particularly important amid Thailand’s bloody and divisive politics. One of the most-cited moves by the king was his intervention in 1992, when he’d called a coup leader and a democracy advocate — both generals — to kneel before his throne and made them pledge an end to political violence. (His role in endorsing other coups was less mentioned.) But more than a decade later — aged, weak, and increasingly hospitalized — he’d been able to do little to stop the violence between the red-shirted rural supporters of billionaire Thaksin Shinawatra and the urban elites who bitterly feared losing their privileges. The anti-Shinawatra faction donned yellow shirts — the royal color — to try to inhabit some of the king’s authority. By the time of the 2014 coup that installed the current junta, the possibility of royal intervention was remote at best.
The funeral offered a chance for Thais to come together. But that evening, the mood soured. Following the symbolic cremation at 6 p.m., the real event was supposed to take place at 10 p.m. — broadcast live as everything else had been. Just beforehand, though, the feed was suddenly cut, and journalists were ushered out of the press center. The crowd was disappointed and unhappy; rumors spread that the decision had been made by the current king, the 65-year-old Maha Vajiralongkorn, who had attended the cremation accompanied by both his ex-wife and his mistress. The cremation remained unbroadcast, with the palace putting out the story that it had been decided it was a “private event.”
Privately, however, some saw it as an act of spite by the new king against his father. Relations between the two had been fraught; the late king’s 2004 biography of his dog, Tongdaeng, read like an implicit rebuke of his wayward heir. The dog respected authority, always did what she was told, and was a good child.
The reality of the new king was the unspoken shadow of the day. Every Thai grew up being taught happy memories of the late king, but most of them have heard much less savory stories about the then crown-prince. If the iconic images of Bhumibol were of rural development or scholarly piety, those of Vajiralongkorn are of a 2007 video showing him and his barely clad then-wife feeding cake to their poodle, Air Chief Marshal Fufu, or snaps from his German residence of him in a tank top sporting extensive tattoos. Thanks to Thailand’s draconian lèse-majesté laws, people are still in prison for sharing those images online.
The role of the new king is still uncertain. His coronation has been delayed until an unspecified future date, although he has already taken on monarchical duties. Although he backed the authoritarian new constitution imposed by the generals, his relationship with the military reportedly is not that close. With most of his time in recent decades spent out of the country, he hasn’t built up the close rapport with particular units that older royals did, despite his own air force training. Practical power will remain in the junta — and the symbolic power of the monarchy may have drained away with the old king.
That accounted for one last repeated phrase from mourners that day: “Everything will be fine in the future if we stick to the ideas the king laid down.” It was an expression of tentative hope — but it was also the official line of the ruling junta, honoring the old monarch without explicitly celebrating the new. However carefully crafted the late king’s myth had been, it had given many people meaning and unity. Looking at the image of Vajiralongkorn, with his mouth seemingly always open in a mildly idiotic gawp, it seems hard to imagine a new faith taking hold.
James Palmer is a senior editor at Foreign Policy. @BeijingPalmer