Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej

Why the clothes you wear is a black and white issue in Thailand right now

Authorities are urging calm as social media throbs with criticism of people who aren’t wearing black and white clothing to mourn the revered monarch and some arch-royalists take to reprimanding people in public

PUBLISHED : Monday, 17 October, 2016, 12:20pm
UPDATED : Monday, 17 October, 2016, 10:55pm

The unprecedented outpouring of public grief over the death of Thailand’s king has begun to show signs that it could turn nasty after a series of incidents in which angry citizens have turned on those perceived as not showing the correct levels of respect to the late monarch.

On two occasions since the death of King Bhumibol Adulyadej last Thursday mobs of angry people have gathered to demand summary justice under Thailand’s strict lese majeste laws which are designed to prevent behaviour and speech critical of the Thai royal family.

Both incidents took place in the south of the country, one in Phuket and the other in Koh Samui. Military and civilian police dispersed the mobs on both occasions.

In another sign that high-running emotions were threatening to turn nasty, the Prime Minister of Thailand’s military government, Prayut Chan-o-cha, moved to calm down growing discontent among people angry at their fellow countrymen and women for not wearing black or white during the official mourning period.

The Koh Samui incident stemmed from a social media posting by a woman which had been perceived as defamatory against the king’s heir, Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn - who is yet to formally ascend to the vacant throne - and the country’s acting regent, 96-year-old former Prime Minister, Prem Tinsulanonda.

On Sunday, two police officers led the 43-year-old woman named as Umaporn Sarasat to a picture of King Bhumibol in front of Bophut police station on Samui, where she knelt and prayed, both on the way into the station and the way out.

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A crowd, some of whom held aloft portraits of the revered monarch, jeered when she first appeared. A line of police officers linked arms to keep them from surging forward.

In the other incident on Friday, police and soldiers on the Thai resort island of Phuket dispersed a mob of several hundred people seeking a confrontation with a man they believed insulted the king.

Video showed the crowd blocking the road outside a soy milk shop and waving placards with slurs such as “buffalo”, a local slang word for stupidity. Some shouted for the man to come out.

The Bangkok Post reported that government spokesman Sansern Kaewkamnerd said the prime minister believed all Thais revered and were loyal to the late King and wanted to wear black or white to grieve his passing.

Prayut, however, said he understands there is a high demand for black and white clothes and there may be a shortage in the markets.

“The prime minister wants people to understand each other and sympathise with the limits faced by each individual,” Lieutenant General Sansern said, calling on the public not to misinterpret the matter.

“This should be a time to demonstrate love, unity and keep the society peaceful,” the spokesman quoted the prime minister as saying. Those who cannot dress in white or black can wear grievance symbols... such as black ribbons or bows on their shirts, either on the chest or upper arm, Sansern said.

The move came after several social media posts were found to have expressed dissatisfaction against those who have not been wearing black or white.

In one case, a photo posted on social media showed a man wearing an orange shirt having a meal with a message saying: “Why is he not wearing black? What is his heart made of? He has no conscience.”

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The person who shared the photo later apologised to the man wearing orange after he posted photos that showed he had just come back from an event where he paid his respects to the late king.

Some people on social media were said to have begged forgiveness as they did not have the money to buy the clothes.

Not everyone is required to follow millions of mourning Thais in wearing black, but visitors are nonetheless expected to avoid overly revealing or colourful attire.

Britain has advised its citizens to “behave respectfully when in public areas.”

“If possible, wear sombre and respectful clothing when in public; check local media regularly and follow the advice of the local authorities.”

In another development, Sansern insisted the government has not ordered the removal of pictures of the late king as indicated by some social media posts.

“Photos or paintings of the late king can still be installed either in front of buildings or state agencies or public places,” said Sansern.

King Bhumibol passed away last Thursday aged 88 after suffering a long illness. His death has prompted an unprecedented year-long period of mourning in Thailand and led to a mass out-pouring of grief that has brought tens of thousands of people onto the streets of the capital and a sent a wave of emotion across the nation of 67 million people.

Due to the Crown Prince’s decision to delay his ascent to the throne, 96-year-old former army general Prem - a previous prime minister and close and trusted confidant of the late monarch - has stepped in as regent.

The Crown Prince - who due to his chequered past and the fact that he has lived most of his life outside Thailand commands little of the respect and affection his father built up during his more than seven-decade reign - wants to leave the formal succession until later, when parliament will invite him to ascend the throne.

Additional reporting by Associated Press and Agence France-Presse