Thailand Wakes to Uncertainty, Grief Without King Bhumipol
By Juarawee Kittisilpa & Andrew Marshall 14 October 2016
BANGKOK, Thailand — Thailand’s people woke up on Friday to the first day in 70 years without King Bhumibol Adulyadej, a king worshipped as a father-figure who guided the nation through decades of change and turmoil.
The king, the world’s longest-reigning monarch, died in a Bangkok hospital on Thursday. He was 88.
He had been in poor health for several years but his death has shocked the Southeast Asian nation of 67 million people and plunged it into grief.
The streets of Bangkok were busy as usual on Friday morning, 12 hours after news of the king’s death was announced. Most people in the capital and in towns across the country dressed in black but shops opened for business.
The cabinet declared a government holiday for mourning but the Stock Exchange of Thailand and other financial institutions opened as normal.
The stock market’s benchmark index rose at the open and was up 4 percent by late morning while the baht currency strengthened about 1.3 percent against the dollar, on hopes that there would be an orderly succession.
Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn is expected to be the new king but he does not command the same adoration that his father earned over a lifetime on the throne.
At Bangkok’s Grand Palace, thousands of mourners, some sobbing, lined up to kneel before a portrait of the king, and make a ritual pouring of water as part of royal funeral rites.
“I still feel like I’m dreaming. I can’t believe it happened,” said Supawan Wongsawas, 64, a retired civil servant.
Suthad Kongyeam, 53, a civil official, said it felt like losing a father.
“He was the heart of the whole country,” said Suthad. “Everything is shaken. There is nothing to hold on to anymore.”
Thailand has endured bomb attacks and economic worries recently while rivalry simmers between the military-led establishment and populist political forces after a decade of turmoil including two coups and deadly protests.
The king stepped in to calm crises on several occasions during his reign and many Thais worry about a future without him. The military has for decades invoked its duty to defend the monarchy to justify its intervention in politics.
Military government leader Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha said on Thursday the country was in “immeasurable grief … profound sorrow and bereavement”.
He said security was his top priority and called for businesses to stay active and stock investors not to dump shares.
‘DON’T KNOW WHAT TO THINK’
Thursday’s crush of mourners in the grounds of Siriraj Hospital, where the king died, had gone by Friday morning, but about 100 people, most dressed in black, prayed there before a statue of the king’s late mother.
“I’m scared and don’t know what to think. If I go home I can’t think,” said Jirawat Wayaphan, 64.
The hospital was open and busy, but all visitors froze and stood at attention as the national anthem was played over loudspeakers as usual at 8 a.m.
Later on Friday, the king’s body will be taken in procession from the hospital to the Grand Palace. Authorities have not issued plans for a funeral but a traditional royal cremation will take months to prepare.
By mid-morning, hundreds of mourners had packed the narrow, sun-seared pavements along the route. Many people sheltered beneath umbrellas or cooled themselves with fans. Paramedics with a wheelchair plucked one woman from the crowd who was suffering in the heat.
Security was tight in the city’s old quarter of palaces, temples and ministries with soldiers at checkpoints, government offices and intersections.
Black-and-white footage of the king playing jazz on the saxophone has replaced regular transmissions on television channels since shortly after the king’s death was announced.
Prayuth said Prince Vajiralongkorn wanted to grieve with the people and leave the formal succession until later, when the parliament will invite him to ascend the throne.
“Long live His Majesty the new king,” Prayuth said.
Thailand’s strict lese-majeste laws have left little room for public discussion about the succession.
The junta has promised an election next year and pushed through a constitution to ensure its oversight of civilian governments. It looks firmly in control for a royal transition.
Foreign embassies in Thailand advised tourists to respect the feelings of the Thai people at their time of grief.
Tropical Thailand, with its beaches, Buddhist temples and infamous night life, expects a record 33 million tourists this year.
Most Thais have known no other monarch and King Bhumibol’s picture is hung in almost every house, school and office.
Until his later years, he was featured on television almost every evening, often trudging through rain, map in hand and camera around his neck, visiting a rural development project.
His wife, Queen Sirikit, 84, has also been in poor health over recent years.
The Thai community in California, the largest in the world outside of Thailand, was also in mourning.
“I just know that I loved my king, he is the king that helped everybody, helping the poor, everything,” Stella Boonyawan, a Thai expatriate, said outside the Buddhist Wat Thai Temple in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley.
In Bangkok, Prayuth warned against anyone taking advantage of the situation to cause trouble. Politicians from all sides will be in mourning.
Given a smooth transition, major economic disruptions are not expected, analysts and diplomats said.