Thailand’s year of mourning royally – RTÉ World Report

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Waiting in line to view the remains of the late Thai king, Bhumbibol Adulyadej (Simon Roughneen)

BANGKOK — Even though the afternoon temperature soared into the high 30s, the lines of black clad mourners stretched hundreds of yards in two directions around the Grand Palace in Bangkok.

Old and young alike, some snoozing in the afternoon heat, towels over their faces, the crowds were waiting to pay their respects to the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej

He died on October 13 last year and has since been lying in state since, a year long mourning period ahead of a lavish Buddhist and Hindu rite state funeral that will start on the 25th of this month.

These last few days have been the final chance for Thais to honour the late monarch, whose death at the age of 88 marked the end of a reign that lasted 70 years.

Some had travelled by bus from around the country, road trips of 10, 12 sometimes 15 hours, while others had been in the line overnight, and had a few more hours of waiting before their turn would come to kneel briefly before the body of the king.

“I don’t mind the wait or the heat,” said Andy Li, a Thai-Chinese using an anglicised version of his name. He had travelled from Pichit province, about 200 miles north of Bangkok. “I have been here ten hours and it will be another four before I get in,” he said.

Ae Sommkattawan, a teacher from Pathum Wan, a Bangkok suburb, had taken some of her leave time to volunteer to cook snacks and hand out water to the endless lines of parched mourners.

“It is a way to pay respect to the king, he was our father,” she said.

Volunteers handing out water to the Thais lining up to view the remains of the late king Bhumibol Adulyadej (Simon Roughneen)

At the end of this month the late king will be cremated on a ornate wooden pyre in a ceremony presided over by his successor and son, the 65 year old former crown prince Vajiralongkorn.

Since Adulyadej’s death last year, 13 million Thais have prostrated themselves before the dead king. The turnout for the October 25 funeral is likely to echo those numbers: out of a Thai total population of 68 million, 10 million live in Bangkok.

With space for around a quarter of a million in the area around the funeral pyre, millions more will be packed onto streets radiating off that plaza.

The veneration of the late king marks Thailand out in a world where monarchies have been abolished or are retained as ceremonial, even whimsical, relics.

But in Thailand the adulation of Adulyadej grew over the course of his 7 decade reign, where, despite the undoubted respect he commands, even now in death, among millions of Thais, strict laws against any disrespect of the king, queen or crown prince mean any infraction can be punished with 15 years in jail.

The new king Vajiralongkorn does not, it is whispered, command the same reverence. He has been divorced 3 times and even since succeeding his father has been photographed in Germany, where he spends a good part of his time, tearing around Bavaria in fast cars and, to the delight of the German tabloids, seen ambling around wearing crop tops, mistress in tow and tattoos on show.

Media based in Thailand, including foreign press, risk prosecution for any such candid coverage of the king’s cavorting, with websites such as the UK’s Daily Mail blocked in Thailand for its lurid depictions of the new king’s German jaunts.

If anything freedom of speech has gotten worse during the year long royal transition, with Thailand’s military regime clamping down on any dissent.

Yingluck Shinawatra, the democratically elected civilian prime minister who was deposed by the army in a 2014 coup has fled to the UK, where she is said to be preparing an asylum application.

Well over a hundred people have been charged with lese-majeste, the old French term for insulting monarchy, including Sulak Sivaraksa, a renowned historian, whose crime was to suggest that a 16th century battle, recently the subject of a historical propaganda epic movie being promoted by the Thai military, might not have hinged on legendary elephant duel in which the Siamese king defeated a Burmese prince.

The army seized power 3 years ago after royalist protestors paralysed the government, and that at the end of a decade of on-off street battles over the future of Thailand as the late king aged. Elections were being won consistently by the brother of Yingluck Shinawatra, Thaksin, once the owner of Manchester City, and who fled Thailand a decade ago after being deposed by the army in 2006 and later charged with corruption.

Thailand’s then prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra leads Bangkok candle-lighting celebration to mark King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s birthday on Dec. 5 2011 (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

Thaksin won the loyalty of tens of millions of voters by social spending in neglected rural areas. But as his popularity soared, royalists feared the old order was being undermined and perceived a threat to the monarchy, labelling Thaksin as a vote-buying populist.

With the new king uncertain of his popularity, it is likely the army will retain control in Thailand for the foreseeable future, even though there is little prospect of the Shinwatras returning, or of a popular uprising against military rule

Last week the Prime Minister, General Prayuth Chanocha, told US President Donald Trump during a visit to the White House that elections would be announced next year, though that would likely mean holding the vote in 2019 at the earliest.

And even if those elections take place, a constitution brought in last year by the military will curtail any civilian government from making any reforms.

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