Monks led sombre ceremonies across Thailand Friday to mark one year since the death of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, as the grieving nation prepares to bid a final farewell to the beloved monarch in a spectacular cremation ceremony this month.
Revered as a demi-god and described as a “father” to all Thais, Bhumibol commanded deep devotion during his historic 70-year reign.
The past year has drawn out widespread scenes of collective mourning across the kingdom, with many Thais expunging colour from their wardrobes and donning only black and white for most of the year.
The solemn mood has deepened this month as the kingdom grapples with having to bid a final goodbye to the monarch during his October 26 cremation, part of an elaborate five-day funeral that will send Bhumibol’s spirit to the afterlife.
On Friday black-clad Thais streamed into temples, state agencies and the courtyard of the Bangkok hospital where Bhumibol passed away last year to give alms to Buddhist monks in his honour.
“I don’t want the cremation ceremony to take place, I just can’t cope with it,” 57-year-old Kanokporn Chavasith, one of hundreds of mourners gathering outside the Grand Palace in Bangkok, said through tears.
Another bleary-eyed mourner, 61-year-old Chalita U-sap, added: “I want him to stay with us forever.”
Most offices have closed for the public holiday and the nation plans to hold a moment of silence at 3:52pm, the exact time the monarch died at age 88 following years of poor health.
Marigolds and muted TV
Public displays of mourning have been encouraged and orchestrated by the ultra-royalist junta that seized power in 2014 as Bhumibol’s health was declining.
As the massive funeral draws nearer, TV channels have been ordered to reduce their colour saturation, refrain from overly-joyous content and roll out documentaries highlighting the the king’s good works.
Businesses have erected portraits of the bespectacled monarch, while parks and pavements have been lined with marigolds — a flower associated with Bhumibol.
A severe royal defamation law, which has been vigorously enforced by the junta and landed critics decades in jail, makes it difficult to measure the role that social pressure plays in teasing out displays of devotion.
Frank discussion of the monarchy and its role in Thai politics is impossible under the lese majeste law, which has spawned a culture of self-censorship across the arts, media and academia.
Although the constitutional monarch has limited formal powers, Thailand’s crown became enormously wealthy and influential under Bhumibol’s reign.
The monarch, seen as a rare anchor of stability across decades of political upheaval, used his position to shape history behind the scenes with the loyalty of much of the business and military elite.
He also charmed ordinary Thais with a reputation as a hard-working king dedicated to projects for the poor — a image further burnished by an extensive palace propaganda machine.
Bhumibol’s successor, King Maha Vajiralongkorn, has yet to attain his father’s level of popularity and spends much of his time abroad.
His relationship with the military rulers and other traditional powerbrokers is difficult to parse due to the opacity of royal affairs and the lese majeste law.
But the 65-year-old has already made moves to consolidate control over the palace bureaucracy and reduce government oversight during his first year in power.
Vajiralongkorn, who will lead an alms-giving ceremony at the Grand Palace Friday evening, is expected to hold his coronation after his father’s funeral, though no date has been set.
In a letter to the public this week, he expressed gratitude to the some 12 million Thais who visited to the throne hall where Bhumibol’s body has been lying in state.