People walking on the streets of Bangkok are dyed in black and white, or pinning black ribbons on their chests and arms. Advertising billboards transform into solemn proclamations of grief. Entertainment, in this most entertaining of cities, is scarce. Hundreds of thousands, all wearing black, converge at the Grand Palace to sing the royal anthem and light candles.
Such is the depth of the feeling that the Thai people feel towards His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej that the end of his reign should bring so much grief. The late King once said that he did not wish for the people to cry once he died. For once, the Thai people did not- and could not- heed his words. Tears have flowed continuously since October 13th, after the news of his death was announced by the palace.
This has posed a dilemma, however, for many foreign watchers of Thailand. How can we reconcile the emotion that Thai people have towards the King and the common view that the worldwide age of monarchy has long been over? “Semi-divine”: this is the word that many foreign news reports, attempting to make sense of this massive show of anguish, have used to describe how Thai people view the King. It is true that Thai kings have ruled since Ayutthaya times in the tradition of the devaraja- “the divine king”. But while Thailand is a deeply superstitious country, this celestial perspective is hardly the reason for why Thai people mourn the king.
Instead, it may very well be the opposite. In Thai, a word that people often use to call the King is “father”- such is the personal connection that many feel towards their monarch. With his passing, Thais have lost not just a king, but a father-figure to us all.
Other reporters have instead reserved the use of an altogether less flattering term to describe the Thai people: “brainwashed”. To revere a monarch so, must not the Thai people be brainwashed into loving the King? The most appropriate response to this that I have seen comes from Thitinan Pongsudhirak, writing in the Bangkok Post: “The Thai people are not dumb”.
Perhaps the palace does have a good public relations machine to promote the monarchy. But propaganda is not needed when the work that the King has done for his people is real. There can be no denial, in the face of thousands of images and footage of the King tirelessly visiting the rural provinces and overseeing royal projects, that the King worked diligently over the seven decades of his reign to promote the wellbeing of his subjects. This is not brainwashing, but rather, inspiration through real effort.
It’s not about his so-called “semi-divine status”. It isn’t that the Thai people have been brainwashed. Nothing is that complicated. Instead, it’s simply about how the King fulfilled the promise he made at his coronation: “to reign with righteousness for the benefit of the Thai people”. He was a king who launched four thousand royal projects to help improve the living standards of his people. He was a king who selflessly waded through rivers and walked through mountains to see the most impoverished corners of his nation. He was a king who intervened personally and used his moral authority to prevent civil war from erupting in the country. When a king shows such care for his people, how can the people not reciprocate?
The grief that the Thai people feel towards King Bhumibol is genuine, rooted not in fiction but in fact. And as such, there is little need to be surprised by the outpouring of emotion that Thais have demonstrated.
They are truly united in grief.
These are uncertain times, of course. Only five percent of the country knew the reign of a former king; hardly anyone remembered before October 13th what the transition between reigns is like. But as in all situations, amidst the depth of despair there is still a glimmer of hope. Colourless and anxious the country may be, but at the very least Thailand stands together. The passing of the King has shaken everyone. Forgotten, for a while at least, are the divisions that have plagued the country for the past few years. When the hundreds of thousands who went to the Grand Palace sang the royal anthem together, they represented the voice of an entire country, uniting as one to send their monarch a final farewell.
The unity that the Thai people have shown with the passing of the King is inspiring and reassuring. But in my mind, it is unfortunate that we should spend the final decade of the previous reign so divided and unite together only with the passing of such a beloved monarch. It is imperative that we do not let this dissipate. Today we unite in the colours of mourning, but it cannot be that we return to the petty squabbling of yesterday once the time of grief passes.
So let us mourn His Majesty the King. Let us stand together, united in grief, as we witness the end of an era. And let us remember this newfound national unity as the country continue to moves forward towards a new future.