For Thais, a year of mourn­ing for a much-loved King will end today

The Asian Age - - News+ - Maura Moyni­han

Chakri Dy­nasty, King of Thai­land for 70 years and seven months. In this year of mourn­ing King Bhu­mi­bol’s body has lain in state in the Dusit Maha Prasat Throne Hall of Bangkok’s Grand Palace, and 13 mil­lion Thais, about one in six in a na­tion of 68 mil­lion, have paid their re­spects to the Golden Urn.

On the evening of October 5, I went to the Grand Palace for the last day for mourn­ers to bid farewell to the King. Sanam Lu­nang, the great field ad­ja­cent to the Grand Palace, has served as the wait­ing area where mul­ti­tudes have been given food and drink, med­i­cal as­sis­tance, even cloth­ing rentals to ad­here to the tra­di­tional sar­to­rial re­quire­ments for the oc­ca­sion. Staffed by vol­un­teers, medics and mil­i­tary, the at­mos­phere was gra­cious and heart­felt. It was a full moon at the end of the rainy sea­son — Thai­land has three sea­sons: the hot, dry and wet — and Bangkok is daily drenched by cloud­bursts. But on that Purn­ima night, Lord Indra with­held the rain and a pearl white moon rose above the golden spires of the Grand Palace, as cit­i­zens waited in pa­tient queues un­til 3 am. One grand­mother had come 315 times to ex­press her love for her King. “I wanted to be close to my King one more time,” said an engi­neer from Bangkok, lin­ger­ing at Sanam Luang af­ter a last pil­grim­age to the palace. “For 70 years, we never knew life with­out him. From my ear­li­est child­hood, ev­ery night we watched him on tele­vi­sion, al­ways work­ing, al­ways help­ing us. I can’t quite be­lieve that he isn’t here.”

In this year of mourn­ing, King Bhu­mi­bol’s pres­ence has been ubiq­ui­tous. Images of the beloved monarch are seen ev­ery­where, adorned with black and white ban­ners and flo­ral of­fer­ings. His hit songs, which he played live on Thai ra­dio ev­ery Fri­day in the early years of his reign, float through the air. And for an en­tire year many Thai cit­i­zens have worn the mourn­ing colours of black and white, many with pins and em­blems with the nu­meral 9.

In­deed, for 70 years, Rama IX was a con­stant pres­ence in the lives of his peo­ple, as he was the first Thai monarch to visit ev­ery cor­ner of the king­dom. Bangkok is filled with ex­hi­bi­tions with paint­ings and pho­to­graphs of King Bhu­mi­bol strid­ing through fields and jun­gles with his pen­cils, maps and cam­eras. He­launched thou­sands of royal projects in in­fra­struc­ture, health­care, ed­u­ca­tion, art and com­merce, which made Thai­land the most sta­ble and pros­per­ous na­tion in South­east Asia. King Bhu­mi­bol is known as the fa­ther of Thai ra­dio, from child­hood he took a keen in­ter­est in telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions and on his vis­its to re­mote re­gions of Thai­land he al­ways car­ried a walki­etalkie, to be alerted to crises and nat­u­ral dis­as­ters. King Bhu­mi­bol also cre­ated Thai­land’s mod­ern univer­sity sys­tem and per­son­ally be­stowed the de­grees on ev­ery sin­gle grad­u­ate; many vis­i­tors to the Grand Palace brought with them trea­sured pho­to­graphs of re­ceiv­ing their diplo­mas from the King’s hand.

Through­out this month, jum­botrons, video screens in the sky train and Thai tele­vi­sion are screen­ing archival footage of the King’s life, which show the as­ton­ish­ing range of his tal­ents and achieve­ments. There are in­nu­mer­able pro­grammes about his in­no­va­tions in agri­cul­ture and tech­nol­ogy, and of course, his gifts as a com­poser and mu­si­cian. There are two iconic pop cul­ture images of the King — meet­ing Elvis Pres­ley in Hol­ly­wood, and jam­ming with Benny Good­man and Gene Krupa in New York City. When Benny Good­man and his or­ches­tra per­formed in Thai­land in 1956, Mr Good­man fa­mously ob­served: “That King of Thai­land is the coolest cat in the world.”

Watch­ing the film footage of King Bhu­mi­bol’s life is wit­ness­ing the arc of the postSe­cond World War or­der. His state vis­its through­out the world were tri­umphs; flu­ent in English, French and Ger­man, his pro­to­col was im­pec­ca­ble, and his wife, the exquisitely poised Queen Sirikit, ruled the in­ter­na­tional best-dressed list for years. But Thai­land was un­der siege from a vi­o­lent Com­mu­nist in­sur­gency that lasted from 1963 to 1983, and when Saigon fell to the Vi­et­cong in 1975, King Bhu­mi­bol vowed that he would never leave his peo­ple. The ul­ti­mate proof of his fidelity is that he never did, save for a trip to the Lao­tian bor­der in 1994 where he su­per­vised the open­ing of a bridge.

As the grounds of Sanam Luang are cleared and swept to pre­pare for the cer­e­monies lead­ing up the royal cre­ma­tion on October 26, many feel a loom­ing sense of fi­nal­ity. The Bangkok Post wrote: “The reign be­gan when we had so lit­tle. It ended with us hav­ing so much more.” On the last night when mourn­ers could come to the Grand Palace, a re­tired civil ser­vant said: “I came over 30 times to pay re­spects to His Majesty. This last time was the hard­est. We all want to keep serv­ing him. We can never re­pay him for ev­ery­thing he gave to us.”

The writer is a New York-based au­thor and re­searcher who spe­cialises in Asian his­tory and cur­rent events

Large crowds of peo­ple pay­ing trib­ute to late King Bhu­mi­bol

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