Thailand’s revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej is cremated after year of mourning
Unannounced decision to conduct cremation behind closed doors confounds thousands of mourners who spent days camped out waiting for the service
Thailand bade farewell to late King Bhumibol Adulyadej on Thursday in an elaborate, ritual-soaked funeral in Bangkok’s historic quarter that gripped a nation mourning the loss of its chief unifying figure.
But after a day of pomp, pageantry and high anticipation, Thais were left confounded as the cremation of a monarch who ruled for seven decades unexpectedly took place behind closed doors.
Pipers, drummers and soldiers in a dazzling array of costumes joined Buddhist monks, Brahmin priests and the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn as the procession made its way to the glittering funeral pyre.
The US$90 million funeral drew a “Who’s Who” of Thai power - royals, generals and establishment figures - as well as scores of foreign guests including Britain’s Prince Andrew and Japan’s Prince Akishino and Princess Akishino.
King Vajiralongkorn was scheduled to light his father’s pyre in an event which was set to be broadcast across Thai media to bring closure after a year of mourning to a people who enjoyed an intimate bond with the late king. But the decision to cremate in private wrong-footed mourners.
“The late King has been cremated but no broadcasting was allowed,” an official from the Royal Household Bureau said as media were suddenly dispersed from the area around the king’s pyre.
For the public, the lavish affair was a chance to say a final goodbye to a monarch cherished as the “father of the nation”.
“I was surprised they didn’t broadcast the cremation,” said Nuttidar Bangsri, 52, who had slept on the pavement near the cremation site for five days.
Vajiralongkorn, who wore full military regalia during the earlier ceremonies, will be crowned after his father is laid to rest.
A woman’s 750km trek to see the cremation ceremony was only one example of the level of religious devotion on display in Thailand on Thursday.
Thailand’s semi-divine “father” was idolised like no other modern monarch. A year of mourning has done nothing to diminish that veneration as Thailand marked a final end to his era with his cremation, uncertain of what is to follow.
“I have walked a long way until all my toenails have fallen off,” said 61-year-old Montha Suchit, who set off in mid-September from Nakhon Si Thammarat in southern Thailand.
“This is the least we can do to repay him,” she said as she waited, clad in black like most of Thailand, for King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s funeral procession to pass by.
Thousands spent days camped on torn cardboard boxes to secure a spot near the procession with only plastic sheets for protection from intermittent monsoon rain and tropical sun.
“He was the lifeblood of the nation,” said Sorana Theppanao, 60, who counted himself lucky to have got a place near the procession by sleeping out for three days.
King Bhumibol developed a very personal following with hikes to remote villages and an emphasis on helping the poor despite the royal family’s immense wealth. He cultivated an image of being above coups and protests while intervening in times of crisis.
Thailand’s royal defamation law shields the monarchy from criticism and scrutiny, carrying 15-year jail sentences for each charge. That law makes independent analysis and frank public debate about the monarchy impossible inside Thailand.
The ruling junta has jailed record numbers of people under the law since seizing power in a 2014 coup.
Aged just 18 when he ascended the throne, the US-born Bhumibol became the fulcrum of the palace and was the world’s longest-reigning monarch until his death.
The royal image was enhanced by a well-funded public relations apparatus.
“The circumstances and propaganda were crucial, but the individual made it all work the way it did, and hence the Thais’ deeply emotional final farewell,” said Thitinan Pongsudhirak of Chulalongkorn University.
Some mourners questioned whether the king would have wanted such an ostentatious send-off, for which US$90 million was budgeted. Upstream of Bangkok, some districts were left flooded after heavy rains so waters could not disrupt the spectacle.
“We all came out to thank the king personally, so in that sense the extravagance was not needed and does not reflect the late king’s attitude,” said 70 year-old Tip Boonmak.
As the procession passed, mourners dropped to their knees, many still holding up mobile phones to record the scene.
“This is the last day we meet him before he goes to heaven,” said Kannika Kamsikeaw, 39.
For foreign visitors, the emotion was hard to comprehend.
“It’s incredible to see this humungous outpouring of devotion,” said 34-year-old Australian Celine Massa. “I don’t feel that emotion for any public figure.”
More than 95 per cent of Thais were born during King Bhumibol’s reign, marked by economic transformation and political turbulence through which he was a stabilising figure.
King Maha Vajiralongkorn, who has succeeded his father, does not have the same following. Recently, he has spent much of his time in Germany, where his son is at school. Asserting his new power, he has required changes to the constitution and taken personal control of the palace’s financial holdings.
Besides drawing a line under King Bhumibol’s era, the cremation was a step towards the military government’s promised revival of politics and an election next year.
For more than a decade, politics in Thailand was torn between “yellow shirts” – royalists dressed in the king’s colour – and “red shirts”, who backed a populist movement whose governments were twice overthrown by the army. But any animosities were hidden on Thursday on the streets of Bangkok.
“Today there is no colour,” said Napthanicha Chantarasena, 33, among those who had camped out for days. “There is only my king.”