Man­ag­ing Death of King Bhu­mi­bol

The Myanmar Times - - Front Page - EDOARDO SIANI MATTHEW PHILLIPS news­room@mm­times.com Edoardo Siani (SOAS, Univer­sity of Lon­don) is an an­thro­pol­o­gist spe­cial­is­ing in the po­lit­i­cal di­men­sions of con­tem­po­rary Thai Bud­dhist cos­mol­ogy by study­ing for­tune tell­ers and akin prac­ti­tion­ers in Ban

SINCE the evening of Oc­to­ber 13, mil­lions of Thais have been mourn­ing the loss of a monarch who reigned over their coun­try for 70 years. Am­bigu­ously lo­cated be­tween the realm of the hu­mans and the gods, thought by many to be a Bud­dha-tobe and widely re­garded as a fa­ther­fig­ure for all, few Thais re­mem­ber a time when the king­dom was not un­der his sup­pos­edly en­light­ened guid­ance. As an ex­tended pe­riod of of­fi­cial na­tional mourn­ing be­gins, there­fore, the as­sump­tion is that Thai­land’s pop­u­la­tion is “united in grief”.

Yet what has per­haps been most no­tice­able about the re­ac­tion to the King’s death is how, so far, it has failed to de­velop into a clear na­tional mo­ment of mass grief. This is not to di­min­ish the feel­ings of those who cur­rently mourn. If any­thing, it is to recog­nise how pro­foundly dig­ni­fied the re­sponse has been. There has been lit­tle ev­i­dence of hys­te­ria, and pub­lic dis­plays of an­guish have been dis­tinctly lack­ing. For most, the grief ap­pears per­sonal – even pri­vate.

The an­nounce­ment To some ex­tent, the rea­son for this seems to be ei­ther by de­sign or by a series of mis­man­age­ments by state au­thor­i­ties. Take the an­nounce­ment of the king’s death.

Ru­mours had been cir­cu­lat­ing for days that the mo­ment was im­mi­nent, and yet dis­cus­sion through the na­tional me­dia was ex­tremely lim­ited. On the day it­self, ru­mours about the king’s pass­ing pro­lif­er­ated, at one point sub­stan­ti­ated by a death cer­tifi­cate that was later claimed to be a fake. On so­cial me­dia, many were talk­ing openly about the news, un­til at some point be­tween 6:45 and 7pm an of­fi­cial death cer­tifi­cate was made pub­lic via on­line news­pa­pers.

Then, shortly be­fore 7pm, all TV chan­nels cut to a brief writ­ten state­ment in Thai lan­guage – white on a dark back­ground – an­nounc­ing, “The king has passed away.” This was fol­lowed by a pre­sum­ably live ad­dress de­liv­ered by an an­chor with an ec­cen­tric hairdo. Speak­ing with a dead­pan ex­pres­sion, he pro­ceeded to soberly spell out the King’s long cer­e­mo­nial name, fol­lowed by the words “has reached the heav­ens”. In the min­utes lead­ing up to the an­nounce­ment, any­one tun­ing in would have had no idea what was hap­pen­ing. There was no live mo­ment where a news­reader and the pub­lic might to­gether share in the first re­port of the news.

At 7.20pm, sta­tions along the staterun rail net­works in Bangkok were still shout­ing out loud ad­ver­tise­ments and old news as if noth­ing had hap­pened. Be­low the colour­ful screens that hang at all sta­tion plat­forms, com­muters were read­ing what had hap­pened from smart­phones. Many silently sobbed. The pri­vate grief was pal­pa­ble, but the state seemed cu­ri­ously un­in­volved. Even­tu­ally, the screens at all sta­tions and in all trains switched to a poem about the royal death, white on a black back­ground with no sound. The imposition of si­lence al­most felt like an ad­mis­sion of guilt by those who had missed the orig­i­nal queue.

The pro­ces­sion Scenes of dig­ni­fied pop­u­lar com­mo­tion were still vis­i­ble in Bangkok the fol­low­ing morn­ing, as com­muters, most of whom were dressed in black, made their way to work as usual. At around 10am, the flow of peo­ple seemed to change di­rec­tion as more be­came aware the gov­ern­ment had de­clared a bank hol­i­day (wan yud racha­gan). This made it a day off work for pub­lic ser­vants and a non­com­pul­sory hol­i­day for cor­po­ra­tions. By 11am, the roads lead­ing to the area where the pro­ces­sion that would take the king’s body to the Grand Palace were clogged with traf­fic.

The of­fi­cial an­nounce­ment had said that the pro­ces­sion would be­gin at 1pm, but by 11am the crowds at Sanam Luang – the green space in front of the palace – were al­ready thick.

The au­thor­i­ties seemed con­fused about how to man­age the crowd. Streams of newly ar­rived peo­ple forced them to re­di­rect en­tire groups to al­ter­na­tive spaces, but they also had to make con­ces­sions. As a re­sult, by 3 or 4pm, groups of hun­dreds of peo­ple could be seen mi­grat­ing from one side of the road to the other, sit­ting down, stand­ing up and at times de­fy­ing or­ders al­to­gether.

As this drama pro­ceeded, my com­pan­ion and I found our­selves squeezed into a spot by an in­com­ing crowd.

The next few hours were gru­elling. We sweated pro­fusely, felt cramps in our legs and back, got sun­burned, and showed the first signs of se­ri­ous de­hy­dra­tion. By 3pm we were both ex­pe­ri­enc­ing vis­ual im­pair­ment, headaches and tin­gles in our hands. The crowd around us was not do­ing bet­ter. Nu­mer­ous peo­ple passed out be­cause of the heat, and health­care of­fi­cers re­sorted to iron­i­cally or­der­ing the crowd to stop faint­ing as they had no stretch­ers left. They passed around cot­ton buds wet­ted in am­mo­nia to help keep peo­ple con­scious, and some nurses walked around man­u­ally spray­ing wa­ter into the crowd.

Po­lice and mil­i­tary of­fi­cials stood in front of the crowd at­tempt­ing to con­tain it. They also bel­lowed di­rec­tions for when the pro­ces­sion be­gan. We were re­peat­edly told not to shout out “Song phra charoen”, the Thai equiv­a­lent of “Long live the king”. We were also told not to take pho­to­graphs and to re­move hats and sun­glasses at the ap­pro­pri­ate time.

The prob­lem was that the au­thor­i­ties did not seem to know when this would be. On nu­mer­ous oc­ca­sions we were hur­riedly asked to close our um­brel­las, only to re­main for min­utes un­der the sun, wait­ing for a pro­ces­sion that did not ar­rive. Of­fi­cers them­selves bowed sev­eral times at cars that passed by, al­low­ing the crowd to think it had. At a cer­tain time, of­fi­cials re­ceived in­struc­tions re­gard­ing their own newly im­posed eti­quette: Sol­diers would be al­lowed to stand, while po­lice would have had to sit on the ground. This was an or­der that was ig­nored.

Through­out the next two hours, mem­bers of the crowd con­tin­ued to ask each other for in­for­ma­tion. Grad­u­ally, any sense of dis­ci­pline waned as many stood up with their um­brel­las and chat­ted.

As time ticked on, the con­ver­sa­tion moved to what peo­ple ex­pected from the pro­ces­sion. The king’s cof­fin would have to be vis­i­ble be­cause he would have to be in a stand­ing po­si­tion. Thai mon­archs, it was said, can­not be laid to rest hor­i­zon­tally like com­mon­ers. Some also in­sisted that, fol­low­ing rit­ual pro­to­col, the king’s body had to reach the Grand Palace be­fore sun­set.

At that point a num­ber of Bud­dhist monks passed by on the back of mo­tor­cy­cles. Seem­ingly late for pro­ceed­ings, that trig­gered a mo­ment of hi­lar­ity. Yet, in spite of the laugh­ter, by now there was no ques­tion this was a true test of will. It was a call to sur­ren­der – in the mind as much as in the body – to a cer­e­mo­nial pa­rade of quasi-ce­les­tial be­ings, into which we had be­come an es­sen­tial part of the stag­ing. On oc­ca­sion, frus­tra­tion be­came di­rected at each other, as the crowd be­came en­gaged in an ex­er­cise of self-dis­ci­pline. Most, how­ever, sup­ported each other, urg­ing new­found friends to stick it out.

As the time moved closer to 5pm, there was widespread un­der­stand­ing that the pro­ces­sion was im­mi­nent. The var­i­ous ve­hi­cles that in­fre­quently passed by were look­ing in­creas­ingly im­por­tant. Fi­nally, a glit­ter­ing mo­tor­cade ap­peared in the dis­tance, the head­lights sparkling in the late af­ter­noon sun.

Every­body in the crowd went silent and the only sounds left were of birds flut­ter­ing around the trees that line the street at Sanam Luang. As the pro­ces­sion came closer, the im­por­tance of the mo­ment be­came pal­pa­ble. Silent tears be­gan to trickle down faces as the pro­ces­sion be­gan to pass by. The first two ve­hi­cles were a car and an un­ex­cep­tional look­ing van. This was then fol­lowed by a string of lux­u­ri­ous royal cars.

At the head of the royal mo­tor­cade was the cream-coloured car of the crown prince. De­spite be­ing sat on the op­po­site side of the car to where we were sit­ting, he was in clear view, as if he was sat in a higher po­si­tion than the other oc­cu­pants. He looked solemnly for­ward, his face softly lit in grief. In the next car, this time sit­ting on our side, Princess Sirind­horn, stared out at the crowds. She didn’t wave, but in­stead looked slumped, lean­ing into the win­dow with a sad, al­most pained ex­pres­sion. The roy­als, as with the rest of the crowd, ap­peared to be caught in a pri­vate mo­ment of grief.

As the rest of the mo­tor­cade passed, the crowd re­mained still and con­tem­pla­tive. This lasted only a few sec­onds. Then it was gone.

Slowly peo­ple started to stand, look­ing at each other in be­muse­ment. “Which ve­hi­cle had car­ried the king?” one man asked. A woman nearby, still vis­i­bly moved, said it had been the first unas­sum­ing van. This was a claim that later turned out be cor­rect, but at the time no­body knew for sure. The peo­ple had come to grieve – and they did grieve – but the fo­cus of their pain had passed them by with them barely even re­al­is­ing. As with the in­co­her­ence of the ini­tial an­nounce­ment, the pro­ces­sion thus pro­vided lit­tle op­por­tu­nity for pub­lic mourn­ing.

Be­fore leav­ing we said good­bye to those with whom we had shared the pre­vi­ous few hours. But we re­mained dis­ori­ented. We got our­selves a free cool drink from a stall around the site, and joined the mass of peo­ple in black who left the area look­ing for a way to go back home.

The le­gacy In the wake of the death of King Bhu­mi­bol, nu­mer­ous ar­ti­cles have at­tempted to ex­press the sig­nif­i­cance of his life. In do­ing so they have in­vari­ably suc­cumbed to re­in­forc­ing na­tion­al­ist myths about what he meant to the peo­ple of Thai­land.

The man­age­ment of grief fol­low­ing his death, both by the state as well as the peo­ple, demon­strates, how­ever, that some­thing else is shap­ing the cur­rent mo­ment. It shows that fre­quent at­tempts over re­cent years to de­mand a love for the king, as well as ef­forts to la­bel po­lit­i­cal op­po­nents as repub­li­cans, have in many ways made roy­al­ism seem an ex­treme ide­o­log­i­cal form of na­tion­al­ism that must be en­forced by law. What was clear from the crowds of peo­ple mourn­ing King Bhu­mi­bol was that these in­di­vid­u­als were nei­ther ex­trem­ists nor that they were there un­der duress.

The pri­vate grief that has been ev­i­dent in pub­lic spaces since the king passed away is sur­pris­ing, partly be­cause it so dif­fer­ent from the bloated form of hy­per-roy­al­ism that an­a­lysts have ob­served as dom­i­nant in re­cent times. What has ar­guably be­come vis­i­ble since last week is an as yet un­de­tected form of in­ti­mate, pri­vate roy­al­ism, that ex­ists sep­a­rately from, and even in re­sponse to, the more ex­trem­ist pub­lic ver­sion.

The au­thor­i­ties’ man­age­ment or mis­man­age­ment of news re­gard­ing the death of King Bhu­mi­bol, paired with the us­age of smart­phones and akin tech­nolo­gies, turned the ini­tial stage of grief into a soli­tary ex­pe­ri­ence for many. The in­ten­tional or un­in­ten­tional lack of ini­tia­tives for chan­nelling grief into a mass ex­pe­ri­ence fur­ther helped to fa­cil­i­tate the in­di­vid­ual ap­pro­pri­a­tion of the per­sona of King Bhu­mi­bol into peo­ple’s most pri­vate and in­ti­mate realm.

Sim­i­larly, the fail­ure to clearly mark the ve­hi­cle that car­ried the King’s body dur­ing the pro­ces­sion to the Grand Palace re­sulted in the atom­i­sa­tion of the crowd. The lack of a vis­i­ble ob­ject – a cof­fin or even a ve­hi­cle – for peo­ple to reify the king in his last form in­evitably left them with no al­ter­na­tive to cling on to other than the images of the man when he was still alive and their own pri­vate mem­o­ries.

The ha­gio­graphic videos that have been rest­lessly shown on all tele­vi­sion chan­nels for 24 hours a day de­pict a youth­ful and en­er­getic monarch vis­it­ing the coun­try’s most re­mote vil­lages pro­mot­ing devel­op­ment. Con­spic­u­ously ab­sent are images of an ail­ing old king who im­po­tently wit­nessed one the worst po­lit­i­cal crises in re­cent Thai his­tory.

As the past few decades dis­solve in mem­ory, King Bhu­mi­bol’s ul­ti­mate le­gacy be­comes a white can­vas, upon which each and ev­ery per­son can paint their own im­age and re­flect on their own per­sonal mem­ory of the King. A pow­er­ful le­gacy in­deed.

– New Man­dala

Photo: EPA

Thai mourn­ers light can­dles as they pray for the late Thai King Bhu­mi­bol Adulyadej dur­ing the royal re­li­gious pray­ing rites as part of the royal fu­neral cer­e­mony out­side the Grand Palace in Bangkok, Thai­land, on Oc­to­ber 15.

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