The world’s longest-reigning monarch has finally breathed his last on Thursday night, October 13th. As a deeply revered figure for his glorious seven-decades rule, the death of King Bhumibol Adulyadej has left Thailand muddled in deep grief and despair.
The “Father of the Nation,” as his people called him, King Bhumibol was widely respected across Thailand for his valuable achievements going beyond his role as a constitutional monarch; he brought national unity in the midst of political turmoil and took active role in rebuilding the economy. In effect, he was “the very model of Buddhist leader” (Bernstein), symbolically standing above the law, parliament, and court.
During the Cold War period, when Cambodia had already fallen under the Khmer Rouge, Saigon to the North Vietnamese army, and Laos to the communist insurgents, Thailand was the single last domino confronting the communist expansion over Southeast Asia. As the authority of the central government was challenged by a series of communist rebellions, it was King Bhumibol who stood up with his people to counteract the insurgent forces through coups and twenty constitutions.
Moreover, in order to restore the national economy, King Bhumibol had visited every poverty-stricken area to establish rural development centers and promote infrastructural improvements. Using his royal purse, he distributed aids during crisis, funded clinics, schools, village roads, electricity, and irrigation systems. He even convinced “hill tribes to switch their growing of opium to that of vegetables, fruit, and coffee,” and opium cultivation declined by 85% as a result (Biography).
“He had been a fabric of Thai life for the last 70 years that he has reigned as king. He has been partially lifted up to a god-like status here, because of what he has done for this country,” said Scott Heidler (Aljazeera reporter from the capital Bangkok).
Even U.S President Obama had once described the king a “tireless champion of his country’s development,” further stating, “I had the honour of calling on his majesty the king during my visit to Thailand in 2012, and recall his grace and warmth, as well as his deep affection and compassion for the Thai people” (BBC).
However, King Bhumibol’s death has also left the nation with the new burden of charting its own path for the uncertain, ambiguous future. Everywhere, thousands of people are dressed in black and white in honor of the King, where it is forbidden to wear any color during the month of mourning. All the websites, newspapers, social media sites, and television shows are stripped of color.
But apart from the national lamentation, other social problems have already begun to arise. Entertainment businesses are already at risk due to the sudden suspension of all celebratory behavior from drinking alcohol in public, partying in clubs or bars, to television programs like comedy. Especially in a country where tourism and entertainment industries are key economic contributors, this official abrupt halt is perceived to have repercussions.
On top of the great profit losses, the nation is also faced with the “remarkable mass outpourings of grief from black-clad Thais” (aljazeera). Extreme monarchy forces such as mobs and online crusaders are seeking to punish anyone who is suspected of insulting the monarchy. And even Paiboon Koomchaya, the justice minister, announced, “there is no better way to punish these people than to socially sanction them,” pledging to “pursue those people who violate the law” (aljazeera).
This “social sanctioning” has reached the point where recently, videos have gone viral on social media, showing mobs violently beating up a man, forcing him to apologize for insulting the monarchy as he pleaded out, “I didn’t mean to do it, I love the king! It’s my fault.” Another elderly woman in a Bangkok bus was berated then slapped on the face by a woman dressed in black all in the presence of police.
As a nation that has revolved around King Bhumibol for decades, his death is indeed having a far reaching effect. More than just a sorrowful, anticipated tragedy, unexpected backlashes are firing back. It seems the time has finally arrived for Thailand to overcome their challenge in truly manifesting their independence and stand up once again.
– Sammie Kim (’18)
(Featured image from DailyMail)