BANGKOK – Thailand embarked on a new and uncertain era Thursday as the remains of the nation’s late King Bhumibol Adulyadej were cremated at the culmination of a spectacular daylong ceremony estimated to cost $90 million that befitted the beloved monarch’s standing as a demigod.
Hundreds of thousands of black-clad Thais, faces creased with grief, thronged the royal cremation site, Sanam Luang, and other gathering spots in the capital, mingling with scores of silent, saffron-robed Buddhist monks. Many mourners prostrated themselves along the route as the gilded urn that represented the late king’s remains was transported by a golden royal chariot pulled by 216 soldiers from the Grand Palace to the 30-acre park nearby.
King Maha Vajiralongkorn, the late monarch’s son and successor, led a portion of the cortege on foot, a manservant shielding him from the sun with a mushroom-like umbrella. The new king’s scarlet, bemedaled military jacket blended into a technicolor riot of crimson uniforms, bright-blue and black bearskin helmets, yellow native outfits and, everywhere, gilt.
Parts of Bangkok were eerily quiet, as its normally exuberant citizens boarded the skytrain and subway—free for the day—to go pay their respects by laying yellow sandalwood flowers at designated sites.
Saksit, 45, brought his family from Nakhon si Thammarat; they were heading toward Sanam Luang. “He is my father and I must honor him,” said the gas station worker. “He is father of all of us. We have to say goodbye to Father.”
Even foreigners joined in, impressed by the depth of Thais’ devotion.
“It’s good; so intense…the way they love their king,” mused Matt Jensen, of Australia, sporting flip-flops at Siam Discovery mall, but showing respect by wearing a black shirt. “We don’t have anything like that in Australia; no king.”
King Bhumibol (pronounced pum-EEE-pon) died in October 2016 at age 88 after a long illness. The late king, also known as Rama IX, had been the world’s longest-reigning monarch, having ascended the throne in June 1946. His funeral and cremation were postponed for a year to give his subjects ample opportunity to mourn and the government enough time to prepare an elaborate send-off.
And what an extravaganza Thursday’s event was. It was Day 2 of a five-day, $90 million funeral, and drew VIP guests from 42 countries, among them members of 16 royal families. The guest list included Britain’s Prince Andrew; Queen Sofia of Spain; U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis; the queens of Sweden and Belgium; the kings of Lesotho and Tonga, and the governor-general of Canada.
The ruling military junta made sure nothing spoiled the careful choreography. It built a 150-foot, three-tiered crematorium in Sanam Luang—and erected 85 replicas around the country to allow people local access. It deployed a security force of some 80,000 around the park (and banned drones over the area). It even prohibited “festive” programming on TV and required appropriately somber dress by all, including the media.
“It is just extraordinary,” said an impressed U.S. political analyst. “Not a single misstep.”
King Vajiralongkorn, 65, kicked off the day’s events, arriving at the Grand Palace around 7:30 a.m., when he presided over a religious ceremony. He also anchored the early-afternoon transfer of the golden urn onto the crematorium pyre, and then the 10 p.m. cremation itself. (The late king’s ashes will be placed in the Temple of the Emerald Buddha on Friday.)
Vajiralongkorn, who effectively ascended the throne on his father’s death, will be formally crowned after all the funeral activities—most likely in December. Thais are eager to learn more about their enigmatic new king, who has a relatively low profile and hasn’t yet won the deep affection Thais lavished on his father. For one thing, Vajiralongkorn has spent much of his adult life abroad—and apparently remains based mostly in Bavaria, Germany.
“We will probably see more and more of the new king asserting his authority, because he is not as popular as his father,” said Kan Yuenyong, director of the Siam Intelligence Unit, a Thai think tank.
King Bhumibol’s 70-year reign coincided with major industrialization and social growth in Thailand. The country, now populated by 69 million people, has grown modern and prosperous, albeit with most of the wealth concentrated in the hands of a few elites. A series of military dictatorships dominated his tenure, although after the mid-1970s the nation has boasted democratic governance—punctuated by coups led by generals who remain deeply distrustful of civilian government and one-person/one-vote elections.
In May 2014, the military led by General—and now Prime Minister—Prayuth Chan-ocha toppled the elected government of Yingluck Shinawatra, and shows little interest in restoring democracy. Instead, the regime orchestrated a successful national referendum in August 2016 in which Thais approved a new constitution that offers only modified democracy and entrenches military oversight.
The junta employs Section 44 of the Constitution to rule Thailand with an iron fist, has banned political gatherings and detained scores of opposition figures, tightly controls the media, and uses the country’s lèse-majesté law—which criminalizes insulting or criticizing the monarchy—to jail, exile or silence political opponents.
Analysts say pressure from the nation’s king—a personage who enjoyed absolute power for centuries and became a constitutional monarch only in 1932—is among the factors that can determine whether the generals agree to loosen the vise on democracy.
General Prayuth met with President Donald Trump in Washington earlier this month. Trump praised the junta leader, emphasized warm U.S.-Thailand relations, and pushed trade between the two nations, making no mention of the junta’s suspension of democracy.
The two leaders did release a joint statement that among other things stipulated new Thai elections would be held in 2018. But back in Bangkok, a government spokesman quickly clarified that an election date merely would be announced in 2018.
“Bending the law and going back on words seems to have become the norm ever since the coup that ousted the elected government in 2014.,” Bangkok Post Editor Umesh Pandey wrote in a column after the Trump face-to-face.
Kan, the political analyst, says the exit of King Bhumibol from the national scene does signify the end of an era, and suggests that King Vajiralongkorn will initially try to continue his father’s legacy.
“Nobody knows what he is about; he has to create his own agenda,” said Kan. “At some point in the future he will try to create his own legacy.”
The question is whether Rama X will carve out an agenda that includes a push for democracy. Or, if he continues to spend much of his time in Germany, whether he will even be around enough to make a difference.