Between 26-29 October millions of Thais had the opportunity to demonstrate their affection and sense of loss over the death more than one year ago of a monarch many viewed as their only real protection between an often self-serving and occasionally brutal military and a rapacious commercial class.
While King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s death on 13 October 2016 at the age of 88 after many years of ill health could not have come as a surprise, for many Thais it did come as a profound shock.
Bhumibol’s 70-year reign encompassed the lives of most Thais, very few of whom are now able to recall the previous monarch King Prajadhipok, or Rama VII of the Chakri dynasty, whose ‘absolutist’ status was removed in a military-led revolt in 1932 but who remained as the country’s titular head until his abdication and self-exile in 1935.
As a constitutional monarch Bhumibol sought to personify the Buddhist ideal of a benign and worthy ruler.
As a constitutional monarch Bhumibol, through a conscious policy of identifying with his poorest and often most geographically remote subjects, sought to personify the Buddhist ideal of a benign and worthy ruler. For many Thais he accomplished this ambition to the point where any alternative to his occupation of the throne became an increasingly intense source of concern.
The last rites to mark Bhumibol’s life and ‘ascent to heaven’ at the end of October therefore also represent a pivotal moment for the country. The protracted period of official and unofficial mourning and the 12-month interregnum between his death and funeral had effectively masked years of political and social tension, much of which had been generated by public concerns and elite manoeuvring in expectation of Bhumibol’s departure and what was to follow.
What happens next in Thailand in the post-Bhumibol era will centre on three main strands based around how the majority of the population choose to be governed, by whom and to what purpose.
These can be characterised as active or passive resistance to or rejection of the present elite-led governance; the erosion of acceptance of the status quo and a return to nativist ‘Thainess’. All are inherently destabilising but all are equally possible – even probable – outcomes of the elite’s collective failure to recognise that the end of one era inevitably signals the start of another.
The military-controlled government’s primary concern is maintaining at least the outward manifestations of stability evident over the past year. As noted, official and popular mourning rituals, protocols and personal observances have muted political activity already constrained by the 2014 military coup and its accompanying marginalisation of mainstream parties and actual and implicit action and threats against most forms of activism.
If this period can be viewed as a mutually agreed cessation of combative politics, then the conclusion of the late king’s funerary rites may represent a resumption in hostilities, hastened by Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha’s pledge in October to hold fresh elections in 2018.
While the military has used the country’s legal system – notably its exceptionally severe lese-majesté laws intended to protect the monarchy but also employed to cushion senior politicians – and other extra-judicial means to suppress or deter dissent, it may soon find there is a limit to their effectiveness following the final official farewell to the near-universally admired late king.
Prayuth’s decision to call elections for November 2018 may result in a low-key coronation in the next few months
King Bhumibol’s heir Maha Vajiralongkorn became the country’s new monarch in December 2016 but has yet to be crowned in a formal coronation. As yet no firm date has been announced, reflecting the new king’s stated intention to wait until after his father’s funeral before publicly setting a date. Other factors may also be at work, and Prayuth’s decision to call elections for November 2018 may result in a low-key coronation in the next few months, as organising a traditional ceremony in the same year as national polls would strain the managerial and technical resources of the country’s military, political and bureaucratic structures.
Further, the military may also wish to gauge public sentiment in the aftermath of the late monarch’s funeral before ‘advising’ King Maha Vajiralongkorn when his coronation may be most propitious to both the royal institution and its own interests. It is no secret that the new king does not command the same respect and affection as his father, and at 65 years of age this is unlikely to change. Efforts to enforce public fealty to the king, or at least the monarchy, through legal sanctions may be the military’s default but it also leaves them vulnerable to forms of resistance they will find difficult to counter.
One notable feature of the past year has been the muting of colour among much of the population. Dark colours symbolising an individual’s respect and grief at the former king’s passing has become largely obligatory and frequently enforced through peer pressure, or in more extreme cases, nationalist groups. Returning to ‘normal’ clothing, which the government has decreed should resume on 30 October, is therefore freighted with significance as it can variously be interpreted as a failure to respect the late king or an unwillingness to recognise his successor and an act of defiance against the military junta. Any official efforts to defuse or disentangle such duality risks weakening the military government’s status and authority through ridicule and confusion, while failure to challenge the widespread refusal to revert to pre-succession outward signs of normality would compromise the status of the new king.