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The Death of a King is a Political and Emotional Trauma

The Death of a King is a Political and Emotional Trauma

By Richard S. Ehrlich

BANGKOK, Thailand -- King Bhumibol Adulyadej's death at age 88 on October 13 has plunged Thailand into the deepest political and emotional trauma in the lifetime of its people, breaking millions of hearts, creating an unpredictable leadership situation for the military government, and prompting widespread fear and pessimism about this often violent nation's future.

"Dear all Thai people, His Majesty the King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the Ninth of His Dynasty, has passed away," announced Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha on national TV several hours after the monarch's death.

"Long live His Majesty the King of the New Reign," he said, indicating King Bhumibol's only son, 64-year-old Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, will be confirmed as Thailand's new monarch.

In 1972, when he was Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, he became the royal heir in a ceremony that was later engraved onto a commemorative currency note, showing the younger man kneeling in front of his enthroned father.

He will become the 10th in the Chakri dynasty line -- to be known as Rama X.

Vajiralongkorn cannot be crowned by anyone else because of the exalted position of Thai kings, and instead must place the crown on his own head.

"The government will inform the National Legislative Assembly that His Majesty the King, who is now residing in his royal coffin, has already designated an Heir Apparent in accordance with the Succession Law," Mr. Prayuth said.

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Unlike the wrenching national mourning in the U.S. when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, or in Britain when Princess Diana died in a car crash, many Thais' reaction to King Bhumibol's death in hospital is an extremely personal, visceral and emotional crushing of their own spirit and lives.

As news of his death spread during late afternoon in this Buddhist-majority society, many people openly wept with almost unbearable sadness.

Executives in offices stopped work to nervously watch official confirmation and news broadcasts, and began crying at their desks, unable to fathom their own future and the fate of this country.

Others prayed or were reduced to stunned, grim silence.

"Do you think there will be violence now?" one teary-eyed financial manager asked her friend who replied: "I don't know, but I'm going to stock up on a lot of food, just in case there are problems.”

Both women asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the situation.

Bangkok and other major cities remained calm.

TV channels broadcast newsreels of the king's life.

A major security alert is currently in effect in Bangkok after police several days ago announced the possibility of a "car bomb attack" by unidentified people in the capital -- presumably unrelated to the monarchy's transition.

Initial sketchy reports said authorities suspected minority Malay-Thai Islamist separatists based in southern Thailand may be involved in the alleged car bomb plot.

Many Thais depended on King Bhumibol who was continuously presented as a benevolent "untarnished" paternal figure.

Bhumibol, an ordained Buddhist monk, was also blessed by Hindu Brahmin priests, melding Buddhism with earlier Hinduism and infusing his reign with both religions' rituals, regalia and beliefs.

His royal family symbols derived from Hindu gods included Vishnu's discus and Shiva's trident.

Some Thais regarded him as a "deva raja," an ancient concept originating in Vedic-era India, which can translate as a monarch who possesses some of the powers of Hindu gods, resulting in a "gods' king".

Others more popularly perceived him as a "dhamma raja" or "dharma raja" -- a king who embodies Hindu and Theravada Buddhist teachings.

As a result, many Thais believed he selflessly protected them from political, economic, natural and spiritual dangers.

Bhumibol's devotees had been worried in recent years that his approaching death might dissipate that protection, and unleash squabbling politicians, corrupt officials, malevolent spirits and other woes.

"His Majesty gave us minorities the protection from being targeted for looking different," said Raj Palsingh, a turbaned Sikh in Bangkok.

"That's the kind of loving leadership he was," Mr. Palsingh tweeted hours after the king's death was announced.

Public schools teach children how to crawl and prostrate ("graab") on all fours -- even when they become adults -- in front of all past and present Thai kings and their royal families either in person or, more often, larger-than-life royal photographs on special occasions.

Born on December 5, 1927, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, his birthday was honored each year by the American Embassy in Bangkok which mounted a large portrait of the king on its outer wall along busy Wireless Road to display Washington's respect.

"We urge U.S. citizens visiting or residing in Thailand to join us in showing respect by maintaining decorum during this extended period of profound mourning," the U.S. Embassy said in an e-mail titled: "Message for U.S. Citizens: The Passing of His Majesty the King.”

Many Thais also sincerely described Bhumibol as a flawless, generous, brilliant and humble person -- and usually referred to him as their "father".

They now worry that his death weakens the possibility that anyone else can duplicate the way he personified the idealized essence of Thailand's cultural and Buddhist values.

For decades, popular perceptions of the soft-spoken monarch were caked with slick public relations efforts by royalists -- civilian and military -- including ubiquitous portraits, daily news updates, and a continual flow of written, spoken and visual hagiography which presented a lofty, storybook, pristine narration of his life and work.

While walking along Bangkok's main streets, people are almost always within sight of a gigantic billboard or smaller sign or wall-mounted calendar portraying Bhumibol in one of several archetypal poses infused with understood altruism.

Supporters praising him in sponsored media and elsewhere often signed their exultations: "Your Majesty's Obedient Servant.”

Foreigners in Thailand were often warned not to do or say anything which could be misinterpreted as disrespectful of the monarch.

Tourists for example were sometimes advised not to hide Thai currency in their shoes or socks because Bhumibol's face is on all notes and coins -- and feet are regarded by Buddhists as the lowest place on the body.

Thailand is a constitutional monarchy and the newest interim constitution, now in force, states: "The King shall be enthroned in a position of revered worship and shall not be violated.”

That sentence has appeared in several of Thailand's previous 19 constitutions which were successively destroyed each time a military coup seized power -- including immediately after the latest putsch in May 2014.

Other laws have imprisoned Thais and foreigners who criticized or insulted Bhumibol or his royal family.

Many Thais however would never think of besmirching their king.

Instead they frequently declared in public and private conversations that they would sacrifice their lives to protect him and his reputation.

Under Thailand's harsh lese majeste law which allows 15 years imprisonment for offenders on each transgression -- sometimes resulting in multiple, successive prison sentences -- only some details about the monarchy and transition can be reported or spoken about in public.

Those laws are expected to be severely enforced during Thailand's one-year-long official mourning period, with officials and the public lashing out at anyone perceived of unsupportive of the achievements, motivations and role of the late king and the royal family, including the next monarch.

The military government led by Prime Minister Prayuth meanwhile vowed to sacrifice their own lives to protect the "highest institution".

The military is widely expected to tighten its control over Thailand during and after the royal succession to ensure calm, maintain investors' confidence, and allow the monarchy and junta time to establish themselves.

* * *
Richard S. Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based journalist from San Francisco, California, reporting news from Asia since 1978. He graduated from Columbia University's Journalism School and also received Columbia University's Foreign Correspondent's Award. He is a co-author of three non-fiction books about Thailand, including "'Hello My Big Big Honey!' Love Letters to Bangkok Bar Girls and Their Revealing Interviews," "60 Stories of Royal Lineage," and "Chronicle of Thailand: Headline News Since 1946." Mr. Ehrlich also contributed to the chapter about "Ceremonies and Regalia" in a book published in English and Thai titled, "King Bhumibol Adulyadej, A Life's Work: Thailand's Monarchy in Perspective." Mr. Ehrlich's newest Virtual Reality novel titled, "Sheila Carfenders, Doctor Mask & President Akimbo," is an immersive three-dimensional, one-hour experience with Oculus technology.

His websites are



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