The death of Thailand’s long-ruling monarch has failed to translate into a clear national moment of mass grief, report Edoardo Siani and Matthew Phillips. Here’s why.
Since the evening of Thursday 13 October, 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-to-be and widely regarded as a father-figure 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. The feeling here appears subdued and contemplative. There has been little evidence of hysteria, and public displays of anguish have been distinctly lacking. For most, the grief appears personal — even private.
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 such as Matichon.
Then, shortly before 7pm, all TV channels cut to a brief written statement in Thai language – white on a dark background – announcing that ‘the King has passed away’. This was followed by a presumably live address delivered by an anchorman 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 state-run rail networks in Bangkok were still shouting out loud advertisements and old news as if nothing had happened. Below the colorful 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.
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 non-compulsory holiday for corporations. By 11am, the roads leading to the area where the procession that would take the kings body to the Grand Palace, were clogged with traffic as people made their way to the site.
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. Police and military officers were telling attendees to find space to sit on the footpaths, stating that they would not be allowed to sit on the road. Those who had positioned themselves already, guarded their spot religiously. At times they verbally attacked newcomers who tried to muscle in.
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 3-4pm, 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, the two of us found ourselves squeezed into a spot by an incoming crowd. From that point on we were hemmed in and so decided to settle down and wait.
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.
Policemen and military men 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 policemen would have had to sit on the ground. This was an order that was then duly 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. People began befriending those sitting next to them, sharing warm bottles of water, candies and wet wipes for fighting the heat.
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 new found 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.
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 Thursday, 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 onto 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.
Edoardo Siani (SOAS, University of London) is an anthropologist studying the politics of Buddhist cosmology and divination in contemporary Thailand.
Matthew Phillips (Aberystwyth University) is a lecturer in Modern Asian History and is a cultural historian of Thailand.