Thailand: Longest-reigning monarch dies, thousands throng streets for funeral procession at Grand Palace
Bangkok, Thailand ( AP + DIPLOMAT.SO) — A white-and-blue van carrying Buddhist monks and the remains of King Bhumibol Adulyadej led a royal convoy Friday from a hospital to the Grand Palace, where the body will remain to allow people pay respects to the monarch who many Thais revered as their father and a demigod.
Bhumibol died Thursday at age 88 at the Siriraj hospital, which had been his virtual home for years as doctors treated him for various illnesses afflicting his lungs, liver, kidneys, brain and blood.
Thousands of people sat four to four rows deep on both sides of the road, sobbing openly in a display of their devotion and love for the monarch and bowing deeply as the convoy passed. Most of them held up portraits of the king in regal yellow robes. Those without portraits simply pulled out currency notes from their wallets — all bank notes carry the king’s face. Many had camped 24 hours since Thursday.
Most Thais had known no other king as Bhumibol, the world’s longest-reigning monarch, had been on the throne for 70 years. His son, Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, who is to take over the throne, followed the king’s body in a yellow Mercedes van. Accompanying Vajiralongkorn was his consort, Lt. Gen. Suthida Vajiralongkorn na Ayudhaya.
The body will lie at the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, or Wat Phra Kaew, inside the ornate Grand Palace complex. No date has been set for the cremation.
“It is a great loss for Thai people,” said Siwanart Phra-Anan, on office worker. “His Majesty will be in Thai people’s heart forever.”
“I’m lost for words because since I was born, I had him as a father of the nation and he unified us,” said another, Siwanee Varikornsakul. “I’ve never been in this situation before. I don’t know what to say. My heart is numb.”
Friday marked the first day in 70 years that Thailand has been without a king as Vajiralongkorn asked for more time to mourn with the rest of the nation before ascending the throne. The constitution says that in the absence of a king, the regent will head the Privy Council, but it is vague about the situation where the heir apparent hasn’t taken over.
The government declared a public holiday and people across the shaken nation donned black, their eyes swollen and red with hours of weeping. Many were still breaking down and sobbing — in building halls, elevators, shops — in spontaneous outburst of emotion that reflected the deep love and respect Bhumibol commanded in Thailand.
The momentous news of his death, announced in a palace statement, had long been both anticipated and feared. But the nation remained stable and life continued largely as usual with most shops, banks and tourist sites open.
A one-year mourning period for the government has been declared together with a 30-day moratorium on state and official events. But as previously speculated, no demands have been made of the private sector. The government has only urged people to refrain from organizing entertainment events for a month, apparently mindful of the need to ensure that the sputtering economy does not suffer. Tourism is one of Thailand’s biggest revenue earners, and entertainment remains an integral part of it.
The stock market and banks remained open, as did Thai embassies worldwide. After plunging for days, the Thai stock market opened up, rising more than 4 percent in morning trading in a sign of renewed confidence in the economy.
Television channels were running non-stop footage devoted to the life of the king, who was deeply revered and held up as a unifying figure in the politically fractious country despite two coups in the last decade alone.
Most Thais have seen no other king in their lifetime and thought of Bhumibol, who reigned for 70 years, as their father and the embodiment of goodness and godliness.
Although a constitutional monarch, he wielded enormous political power and served as a unifying figure during Thailand’s numerous political crises. But in recent years, he suffered from a variety of illnesses that affected his kidneys, brain, lungs, heart and blood. He remained publicly detached from recent political upheavals, including the 2014 coup that brought Prayuth, an army general, to power.
“His death means that the Thai political system must find an alternative focal point around which to unite the country’s factionalized population,” said Tom Pepinsky, a Southeast Asia expert at Cornell University.
He said one challenge that royalists will face is the possibility that the monarchy’s popularity would be undermined by the crowning of Vajiralongkorn, who does not command the same respect his father did.
Bhumibol Adulyadej (pronounced poo-mee-pon ah-dun-yaa-det) became king in 1946. He anchored the Southeast Asian country through violent upheavals at home and communist revolutions next door with a blend of majesty and a common touch.
So revered was Bhumibol that his portraits would be displayed in virtually every Thai home and businesses, generally depicting him in arduous travels to remote villages, where he often went to see the situation of his subjects first hand.
But recently, whenever Bhumibol appeared in public, he was in a wheelchair, waving feebly at his subjects. Even those rare appearances stopped as he became confined to the hospital.
He died a little before 4 p.m. on Thursday, the palace said. It said he passed away peacefully.
“He is now in heaven and may be looking over Thai citizens from there,” Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha said in a statement. “He was a king that was loved and adored by all. The reign of the king has ended and his kindness cannot be found anywhere else.”
Besides Vajiralongkorn, the king is survived by his 84-year-old wife Sirikit who herself has been ailing and rarely seen in public in years. The couple has three daughters — Princess Sirindhorn, the most beloved royal after her father, Princess Ubolratana and Princess Chulabhorn Walailak. Sirindhorn is unmarried; Ubolratna is divorced from her American husband and their two daughters live in the U.S.; Chulabhorn is also divorced and has two daughters.