This week Thailand celebrates its traditional new year Songkran festival, the time of year when a kind of hydro-madness grips the boisterous young folk of the country.
With the help of countless more-than-willing foreign tourists – the aviation authorities say this month more than 5 million visitors will enter the country through its six main airports – for days on end, people spray copious amounts of water over each other, wreaking substantial collateral damage in the process.
Road accident deaths and casualties go through the roof and general mayhem ensues, much to the annoyance of polite Thai society, for whom it is all a bit too much. However, this year the watery festivities are expected to be somewhat muted, or at least, that is what the nation’s military rulers are hoping after issuing a raft of more draconian than usual edicts aimed at taking the edge off the party.
The reason for this tightening of the fun tap is a combination of respect – Sunday marks the half-year point since the death of Thailand’s beloved and revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej – and the innate impulse of the dictatorship headed by the prime minister, General Prayuth Chan-ocha, to exert control.
It remains to be seen whether the effort by the military government to tone down the celebrations, including a call for attendees to avoid skimpy outfits and cut out the powder throwing that normally accompanies Songkran, will be effective.
Songkran celebrations aside, this is an important month not only for the future of Thailand but for its ongoing need to maintain links to the past.
Half a year since the king passed away, thousands of black-clad, patient and respectful Thais continue to flock to Bangkok’s Grand Palace, where they wait for hours to enter the inner sanctum of a monarchical system, unrivalled in terms of the public esteem it engenders, and pay their respects before the guarded and enshrined remains of their beloved king.
WATCH: Water festival observed in Thailand amid major drought
The daily pilgrimage is a sombre affair run with military precision by a combination of the military itself, the police and a sizeable army of good-natured and accommodating volunteers who ease the vast crowds through the labyrinthine corridors of the Grand Palace in temperatures approaching 40 degrees Celsius, with supplies of specially branded royal water and a free takeaway meal for everyone at the end of the process.
A dress code of black only is strictly imposed. On the day This Week in Asia joined the throngs headed for the king’s shrine, even children were being turned away for improper attire.
Bik Chongdee, 9, who had travelled all the way to Bangkok from his home village in Korat in the northeast of Thailand with his father and grandmother, was turned away at the last minute at the foot of the steps inside the grand palace. His father, Oh, said: “You can see my son and me are dressed completely in black, but the official told us his shorts were not long enough, so we could not go in to pay our respects to the king. I kind of understand but it is disappointing after we came all the way from our village and have waited for a long time to show our respect to the king, whom we respect very much.”
Meanwhile, Bhumibol’s son and heir, King Maha Vajiralongkorn, is starting out on a long road to fill his father’s shoes as the nation prepares for the historic funeral and cremation in October. It is only after this that Vajiralongkorn can formally ascend to the throne.
Last month, the new king granted his first audience to a foreign head of state when he welcomed Japan’s Emperor Akihito and his wife to Bangkok.
The monarchies – two of a handful remaining in Asia – have maintained close ties. Bhumibol first visited Japan in 1963, touching off a decades-long friendship with numerous visits back and forth, most recently by Akihito to Thailand in 2006.
The visit by Akihito and Empress Michiko, who laid wreathes and signed a condolence book at the Grand Palace, coincides with a perceived tilt by Thailand towards China, Japan’s main rival in East Asia. The visit gained extensive media coverage and was a crucial step in rehabilitating the image of a former crown prince who spent much of his time outside of Thailand before accepting the throne in the wake of his father’s death. Since then, Vajiralongkorn – who has already fired a number of officials in the royal household – has visited his residence in Germany twice.
This month, the construction of a royal crematorium at Sanam Luang – the main ground to the north of the Grand Palace and the only site of royal cremations since the founding of Bangkok on April 2, 1782 – got underway. At just over 50 metres, the new crematorium will be the highest such structure in more than 100 years.
Deputy Prime Minister Tanasak Patimapragorn said the construction was progressing well. “I think we are even ahead of schedule,” he said of the structure that will host a ceremony filled with Hindu and Buddhist symbolism as the late king “ascends to heaven”.
One of Vajiralongkorn’s first tasks will be to approve a set of laws that will form the foundation of a new constitution, promulgated on Thursday, which sets a path to the restoration of the democracy curtailed in the military coup of 2014 which installed Prayuth as prime minister.
The road map to a new democracy sets out an arcane process that leaves the door open to a continued influence by the military. The military is currently wielding that influence by dragging the exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra back into the political fray amid allegations that the ex-leader – said to have links to the new king – is connected to a recent series of bombings and arms cache finds.
The suggestion appears to be that Thaksin is an ongoing source of instability in the country, despite the fact he has lived abroad for the best part of a decade.
Only last week, the Deputy Prime Minister with responsibility for security, General Prawit Wongsuwon, rejected calls for political parties to be allowed to resume activity, claiming the country was “still not in order”.
All this at a time when economists are predicting a so-called “boiled frog crisis”. Such a crisis refers to how frogs placed in hot water will jump out and escape, but when placed in water that is slowly brought to the boil will wait until they are cooked alive.
That’s as opposed to the tom yum goong (hot and sour soup) scenario the country faced 20 years ago amid the Asian financial crisis, when uncontrolled economic growth led to the collapse of the Thai baht. “Now, we face the t om gob [boiled frog] crisis – sluggish economic growth,” Apichat Satitniramai, a lecturer at Thammasat University Faculty of Economics, told a recent seminar.
Either way, while the hordes gathering for the Songkran festival will be hoping to cool themselves down, elsewhere the waters appear to be heating up. ■