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Thailand in mourning

Image credit: Adaptor- Plug (Flickr: Creative Commons)

Thailand has entered into a one-year mourning period following the death of the beloved King Bhumibol Adulyadej. After a year of speculation around the declining health of the 88-year old monarch, his death was announced last Thursday night and led to mass outpourings of grief throughout the country.

The official mourning period will last for 30 days but funeral rites will last one year, after which the King’s body will be cremated. For the next month many Thai citizens will choose to wear black, entertainment and sports matches have been cancelled, and television stations and websites have switched to black and white as a mark of respect.

On the throne for 70 years, King Bhumibol was the world’s longest-serving living monarch; a title now held by Queen Elizabeth II. Born in America, the King saw his people through countless coups and military rulers, including the latest May 2014 coup that installed the current Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha.

Thais revere the royal family almost to the point of religious fervour. Some of the world’s strictest lèse majesté laws are regularly used to silence anyone who criticised the royal family. Indeed, over the weekend two separate mobs demanded authorities arrest individuals in the South of Thailand who had posted allegedly derogatory statements on Facebook.

The death of the King will have a profound affect on many Thais and his loss is made all the more difficult to bear because of his successor: his son, 64 year-old Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn.

Prince Vajiralongkorn commands none of the respect and reverence his father enjoyed. He is disliked by many, particularly royalists, for his playboy lifestyle and bizarre habits. Divorced three times, Vajiralongkorn is perhaps most infamous for the birthday party he held for his pet poodle Foo Foo (who he appointed Air Chief Marshal of the Royal Thai Army) at which his wife performed topless. Foo Foo received four days of Buddhist funeral rites upon his death.

The Crown Prince caused a stir earlier this year when he was photographed at Munich Airport wearing a miniature singlet with much of his torso covered in temporary tattoos.

The nation’s lèse majesté laws that effectively prevent any discussion about the royal family seem almost too cruel when the Crown Prince provides such fodder for comedians.

Royalists are understandably concerned at what this kind of behaviour would mean for one of the world’s most revered royal families. The ruling junta is similarly concerned about what the reign of Vajiralingkorn could mean. King Bhumibol was used by the military as a means to legitimise their leadership of the country, but Vajiralingkorn is known to have ties with former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

The coronation of the next king will take place after the official one-year mourning period ends. In the meantime, the position of regent falls to former prime minister and current chief of the Privy Counsel 96-year old Prem Tinsulanonda, who is thought to have a rocky relationship with the Crown Prince.

Some are speculating that the year-long grace period prior to the coronation will be used by the junta to polish the Crown Prince’s image and encourage him to lead a more conservative life. Others have suggested the year will be used to try and find a loophole that would allow the succession to skip the Prince and be handed to his sister, who is much more popular among the people.

One thing is for sure: the death of the King and the character of his son will likely be a news story for the next months, in all likelihood over-shadowing other important news to come out of Thailand lately, such as the defamation conviction of British researcher Andy Hall for alleging worker-abuse at the Natural Fruit Company, or the deportation of Hong Kong democracy activist Joshua Wong.

Natalie McGregor is a freelance writer interested in Southeast Asian politics.

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