The Death of King Bhumibol — Thailand Post Special Sheet (2016)

Thailand Post Special Sheet (2016)
Thailand Post Special Sheet (2016)

At 15:52 local time (Thailand is GMT +7) on Thursday, October 13, 2016, His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej died at the age of 88 following a long illness. His death was announced later that evening by the Bureau of the Royal Household (สำนักพระราชวัง). A year-long period of mourning was subsequently announced. An elaborate royal cremation ceremony will take place over five days at the end of October 2017. The actual cremation will be held on October 26, 2017, at Sanam Luang (สนามหลวง, literally “royal turf”) — a large open field and public square in front of Wat Phra Kaew and the Grand Palace in Bangkok. Following cremation his ashes will be taken to the Grand Palace and will be enshrined at one of the palace’s Buddhist temples.

King Bhumibol had been treated at Bangkok’s Siriraj Hospital (โรงพยาบาลศิริราช — Rong Phayaban Sirirat) since October 3, 2014. The king had a high fever due to a blood infection. His health improved after his doctor gave him antibiotics. Until September 28, 2016, he had a low grade fever and pneumonitis. His doctor then treated him with antibiotics and hemodialysis owing to hypotension. His health later worsened due to a liver infection, and his condition remained unstable. On October 12, 2016, his children gathered at the hospital and numerous well-wishers maintained a vigil outside. The Kingdom seemed to hold its collective breath.

I taught an English class to staff members of Krungsri Bank the evening of October 13. The students were quite worried about His Majesty and learned the news of his death during a break in the middle of the two-hour lesson. Several began crying but I assumed that it was because the King had taken a turn for the worse. Unable to express their feelings, they didn’t tell me that he had actually died. I realized that he’d passed after class as I was walking through the shopping mall where our classroom is located. The music in the mall had been switched to playing only jazz compositions written by King Bhumibol; every Thai person I saw was walking in a daze glued to their mobile phones. On the street outside, the lights were dimmed and the large video screens at the nearby traffic intersection displayed a single flickering candle.

Thai well-wishers outside of Siriaj Hospital in Bangkok learn of the death of His Majesty the King.
Thai well-wishers outside of Siriaj Hospital in Bangkok learn of the death of His Majesty the King.

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha made the following speech during the national mourning announcement:

His Majesty the King brought people from their hopelessness to their determination, security and courage to cope with obstacles. The reign was a period of comprehensive national development. His Majesty was the beloved King who was the spiritual center of all Thai people. It was really a 70-year period of righteous reign for the benefit and happiness of Thai people. 13 October will be in the memory of Thai people for good. It was a 70-year period of limitless public benefit and now it is limitless sorrow for the people. The government will inform the National Legislative Assembly that His Majesty the King had appointed the heir in accordance with the royal law on 28 December 1972, and then the National Legislative Assembly will take the relevant action. Please take the opportunity to boost one another’s morale. All of us share the same feelings because we have our common father of the nation. Please help protect national peace and do not let anyone trigger conflicts that would lead to turmoil. Thai people. His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej, King Rama IX, has passed away. Long live the new king.”

The following day, October 14, was my regular day off. The office of the Prime Minister had already announced the year-long mourning period, requesting that citizens and visitors alike don black or grey clothing for the initial 30 days. Government workers, including teachers such as myself, were to continue wearing black clothing for the entire year. I spent much of that first morning walking through Phuket Town, watching workers wrap black and white bunting on public buildings and install memorial signs throughout the area.

Huge crowds of people pay their respects as the body of His Majesty the late Bhumibol Adulyadej is moved from Siriraj Hospital to the Grand Palace in Bangkok
Huge crowds of people pay their respects as the body of His Majesty the late Bhumibol Adulyadej is moved from Siriraj Hospital to the Grand Palace in Bangkok

That evening, I watched television footage as the body of the late king was carried by an motorcade from Siriraj Hospital to the Grand Palace. His body left Gate 8 of the hospital around 16:30. As the cortege passed Arun Ammarin Road, Phra Pin Klao Bridge, and Ratchadamnoen Road, crowds of Thais clad in black and many openly sobbing, paid homage. Led by Somdej Phra Vanarata (Chun Brahmagutto), the abbot of Wat Bowonniwet Vihara, the autocade entered the palace via Thewaphirom Gate. Upon arrival at the palace, the body was given the bathing rite, presided over by the late king’s son, Prince Vajiralongkorn. The general public were allowed to take part in a symbolic bathing rite in front of the king’s portrait at Sahathai Samakhom Pavilion within the Grand Palace later that evening.

Paying respects to His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej with my students. Photo taken on October 18, 2016
Paying respects to His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej with my students. Photo taken on October 18, 2016
Paying respects to His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej with my students. Photo taken on October 26, 2016
Paying respects to His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej with my students. Photo taken on October 26, 2016

The king’s body lay in state in the Dusit Maha Prasat Throne Hall of the Grand Palace for a period of one year, with daily rites for a period of 100 days. As in the funerals of the king’s mother and sister, the king’s body was not physically placed in the royal funerary urn (kot) as was customary; instead, the coffin which housed the body was placed behind the pedestal displaying the royal urn. Special rites attended by Vajiralongkorn — who accepted his succession to the monarchy on the night of December 1, 2016, but will not be crowned formally until after the cremation of his father —  were held to mark the 7th, 15th, 50th and 100th days following King Bhumibol’s death. After the 15th day, the public were allowed to pay their respects and attend the lying-in-state in the Grand Palace.

An estimated 500,000 mourners gathered at Sanam Luang Ceremonial Ground in Bangkok on October 22, 2016, for a mass singing of the Thai National Anthem. Photos courtesy of Reuters
An estimated 500,000 mourners gathered at Sanam Luang Ceremonial Ground in Bangkok on October 22, 2016, for a mass singing of the Thai National Anthem. Photos courtesy of Reuters

Upon the announcement of King Bhumibol’s death, all television channels suspended regular programming and simulcast special programs from the television pool of Thailand, which consisted of monochrome videos and photos of Bhumibol, and coverage of royal events. International channels were also blacked out and replaced by this programming. Following the procession of His Majesty’s body from the hospital to the Grand Palace on October 14, the channels continued to air the pooled tribute content until midnight local time, after which they were allowed to resume regular programming. However, for the remainder of the 30-day mourning period, all broadcasters were forbidden from broadcasting programs that featured “any element of entertainment, dancing, joy, violence, impoliteness or overly expressed emotion”, nor any non-official information, speculation or criticism related to the deceased King and his successor.

Tens of thousands of people gather at the square in front of the Thao Suranari Monument in Nakhon Ratchasima to mourn the passing of His Majesty the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej, October 2016
Tens of thousands of people gather at the square in front of the Thao Suranari Monument in Nakhon Ratchasima to mourn the passing of His Majesty the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej, October 2016

During the initial 30 days of mourning, there were many outward signs of respect and grief. Media outlets and websites within Thailand were displayed in grey or black and white (including sites such as Google, Facebook and YouTube). Bans were instituted on “joyful events”; many nightclubs either closed or kept the music muted. A number of events, including sports (such as the Thai League football season, which ended entirely) were cancelled or postponed. Entertainment outlets such as cinemas and theatres announced that they would shut down or operate under reduced hours during this period. A huge gathering at Sanam Luang in Bangkok in order to sing the Thai national anthem during a ceremony was repeated throughout the country. Numerous newspapers, magazines, books, and calendars appeared bearing tribute to His Majesty.

Memorial signs bearing stamps at the entrance to the Phuket Philatelic Museum and main post office in Phuket Town, Thailand. Photo by Mark Jochim, November 17, 2016

Memorial signs bearing stamps at the entrance to the Phuket Philatelic Museum and main post office in Phuket Town, Thailand. Photo taken on November 17, 2016
Memorial signs bearing stamps at the entrance to the Phuket Philatelic Museum and main post office in Phuket Town, Thailand. Photos taken on November 17, 2016

Thailand Post created its own tribute, announcing a special “post card” available for pre-order at post offices and online starting a week or so following King Bhumibol’s death. This bore a large image of the one-baht stamp of the King Rama IX 10th Series of definitives released in 2010. Most were affixed with this same stamp (although I’ve seen other denominations in the series as well) with a handstamped postmark bearing the date of October 13, 2016. These sold out before the pre-order had finished; I’d attempted to obtain one at the time but you needed a Thai identification card number in order to complete the process (a foreign passport wasn’t accepted). I finally received one a few weeks ago, courtesy of one of my banking students; it’s not really a postcard at all as there is nothing printed on the reverse and the paper is a glossy medium-weight sheet rather than card stock. Apparently, some copies of Thailand Post’s annual yearbook also included these special items sold at a premium.

Tips for paying respect to His Majesty the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej
Tips for paying respect to His Majesty the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej

Out of respect for the mourning, many Thai malls, including all Central Pattana and The Mall Group properties, chose not to install extensive Christmas displays and decorations for the holiday season. Some installed memorials to Bhumibol instead. Western and Chinese New Year’s events in December and February were cancelled outright or muted with a ban on fireworks and other “joyful celebrations”.

At times during the year-long mourning period, ultra-royalists in Thailand have criticized and harassed those who did not wear mourning black. They also subjected to witch-hunts people whom they accused of disrespecting the deceased monarch. On October 14, 2016, angry ultra-royalist groups near my home in Phuket Province thronged the residence of a man who posted on social media a number of comments which they thought offensive to the late king and violated the lèse-majesté laws. This was despite the local police having declared that the comments were not in breach of the law. The groups dispersed after the police agreed to prosecute the man for the crime of lèse-majesté. Similar incidents happened the following day elsewhere in Phuket and in neighboring Phang Nga Province.

In November 2016, administrators at Nangrong School in Buriram Province seized colorful winter jackets from students and required them to wear those in mourning colors only. The students were reportedly distressed to lose their jackets due to the cold weather, and many did not own multiple warm articles of clothing. On November 28, the director of a public school in Ranong Province was removed from office for not wearing mourning black on her first day at work.

The National Council for Peace and Order, the junta ruling Thailand following the May 2014 coup, announced that it will hunt down lèse-majesté fugitives in foreign countries and enlisted numerous overseas governments to assist. This led to highly-publicized arrests in France and elsewhere.

Queuing in the middle of the night to pay respect to His Majesty the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej at the Grand Palace in Bangkok. Photo taken on December 6, 2016.
Queuing in the middle of the night to pay respect to His Majesty the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej at the Grand Palace in Bangkok. Photo taken on December 6, 2016.
Queue at the Grand Palace in Bangkok to pay respects to His Majesty the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej. Photo taken on January 23, 2017
Queue at the Grand Palace in Bangkok to pay respects to His Majesty the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej. Photo taken on January 23, 2017

On January 20, 2017, special nationwide services were held in all Buddhist temples together with a general memorial service to mark the 100th day since King Bhumibol’s death. His Majesty King Maha Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun (มหาวชิราลงกรณ บดินทรเทพยวรางกูร), Rama X, presided over the national service.

On February 28, 2017, a special Royal Kong Tek (Gongde) ceremony was held, presided over by King Vajiralongkorn at the Dusit Maha Prasat Throne Hall and was led by monks from the Thai Chinese Buddhist community in the Bangkok area. The service was in keeping with Chinese Buddhist rites and customs regarding the dead. The Kong Tek ceremony is a Buddhist religious ceremony unique to the Chinese wherein the deceased, together with his personal effects and clothing, is transferred ceremonially to the next life, with special prayers and chants sung by monks. The event was unprecedented since it was the first time such a ritual was held for any member of the Thai royal family in an official capacity.

Mourning signs to His Majesty the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej near my home in Phuket, Thailand. Photos taken October and November 2016
Mourning signs to His Majesty the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej near my home in Phuket, Thailand. Photos taken October and November 2016

Nearly 12 million people have paid their respects in person at the Dusit Maha Prasat Throne Hall. The allowed public attendance ended on October 5, 2017, so that final funeral preparations can be made. The public viewing left an estimated 890 million baht in donations for the royal charity activities. Numerous foreign dignitaries also paid their respects at the Grand Palace with the first,  His Royal Highness King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck of Bhutan arriving on October 16, 2016. A representative of the United States, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, viewed the lying-in-state on August 8, 2017.

The public square at Sanam Luang will be used as the cremation ground, where the construction of an elaborate, temporary crematorium was started in early 2017 and completed in September. The construction cost Thai taxpayers one billion baht. Once the cremation is over, the crematorium will be torn down following a period of public viewing.

The Royal Crematorium for His Majesty the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej at Sanam Luang in Bangkok. Photo taken on April 27, 2017
The Royal Crematorium for His Majesty the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej at Sanam Luang in Bangkok. Photo taken on April 27, 2017

Designs for the cremation complex were officially unveiled on October 28, 2016, and a special ceremony was held on December 19 for the royal funeral chariots to be used at the Bangkok National Museum. The construction work for the complex officially commenced on February 27, 2017, with the building of the central column, The crematorium is the largest and tallest yet since the state cremation rites for King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) in 1911, and unlike past state cremations, will be at the larger northern segment of the Sanam Luang Royal Square instead of the southern segment where cremations were previously held.

On November 19, the Ministry of Culture’s Fine Arts Department head Anant Chuchote visited Nakhon Pathom, where the royal funeral urns have been manufactured for centuries out of old sandalwood trees. He asked for public support and assistance for the making of the royal urn by 150 artisans from the Traditional Arts Office. The department issued a job hiring call in the middle of January 2017 for prospective workers in the Sanam Luang royal crematorium complex and for the needed chariot repair and upgrading works.

Preparing Phra Yanna Mat Sam Lam Khan (พระยานมาศสามลำคาน, literally
Preparing Phra Yanna Mat Sam Lam Khan (พระยานมาศสามลำคาน, literally “Royal Golden Palanquin[s] with Three Poles”), royal palanquins built during the reign of King Rama I for the Royal Cremation of His Majesty the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej at Chariot Hall in the Bangkok National Museum. Photo taken on April 22, 2017

As of February 12, the government pavilion and the Buddhist chapel were under construction. Concurrently, the Royal Thai Army began manufacturing a new royal cannon chariot for the state cremation ceremonies, the first in many years, which was completed in April 2017 and delivered to the Fine Arts Department of the Ministry of Culture. The designs of the buildings combine both Thai traditional and modern building design and construction methods.

The construction process for the royal crematiorium itself commenced with ceremonies on the morning of February 27 in the Sanam Luang Plaza, in the presence of the Prime Minister, General Prayut Chan-o-cha. At the right moment, the central steel beam of the building was hoisted using a crane towards its spot in the plaza worksite after a Buddhist blessing was bestowed upon it.

Preparing the Great Chariot of Victory at Chariot Hall in the Bangkok National Museum. This royal chariot was built in 1795-96. Photo taken on April 22, 2017
Preparing the Great Chariot of Victory at Chariot Hall in the Bangkok National Museum for the Royal Cremation of His Majesty the late Bhumibol Adulyadej. This royal chariot was built in 1795-96. Photo taken on April 22, 2017

Given the importance of the royal funeral, the official practice runs for this began as early as May 15 and 16 with the Royal Thai Army Ordnance Division spearheading the runs simulating the funeral procession of the major chariots in Saraburi province, with two military vehicles serving as simulators.

On May 11, it was reported that the funeral crematorium and the monastic pavilion were almost ready for an early completion, and the prefabrication processes for the decorations to be used in the buildings were in their final stages. At the same time, the sandalwood corn flowers used for state funerals were being made to be used by citizens and foreign attendants attending the services, as the kalamet flowers, protected by law, will only be used in the royal crematorium. The practice of making flowers from corn leaves is a modern practice which began in 1925 during the state funeral of King Vajiravudh (Rama VI).

Royal Crematorium of His Majesty the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej at Sanam Luang, Bangkok. Photo taken on October 9, 2017
Royal Crematorium of His Majesty the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej at Sanam Luang, Bangkok. Photo taken on October 9, 2017

By September 24, more than 5,500 people had volunteered to serve during the cremation period. To encourage greater public participation, replicas of the royal crematorium have been constructed in each of the 77 provinces in Thailand (plus nine in Bangkok itself) to serve people who cannot travel Bangkok to pay their last respects on the cremation date. Transportation costs from the provinces to Bangkok have been significantly reduced while both the public and tourists joining the events can expect free rides on the Bangkok MRT system and the BTS Skytrain lines during the cremation days, as well as on public ferries. The Ministry of Public Health is expected to deploy huge numbers of medical personnel to serve the public and foreign visitors during these days and provide medical assistance.

While social media live reports are prohibited for the television networks (which will be broadcasting the bilingual coverage of the events via the state Television Pool of Thailand and will be streamed worldwide in English via NBT World), people will still post live feeds but with difficulty and the national and international press have been given a special media center at the Thammasat University.

As of October 1, 2017, many (but not all) websites in Thailand have once again gone to a black-and-white color scheme. All sports and entertainment in Thailand ceased as of midnight last night (October 12). With the ban on “joyful events” through October has come some confusion and even saw the Royal Thai Army raiding and shutting-down the full-moon parties held on Koh Phangan last week. Television stations throughout the Kingdom will provide “respectful” programming for the remainder of the month, airing programs about King Bhumibol exclusively from October 25 until the 29th. Most bars and nightclubs have also elected to close from midnight October 12 until midnight October 26 although the government simply requested that the music and entertainment be muted.

October 13 is now marked as a public holiday proclaimed in English as the “Anniversary for the Death of King Bhumibol Adulyadej” and in Thai as Wan Khlai Wan Sawankot Phra Bat Somdet Phra Paramin Maha Phumiphon Adunyadet Borommanat Bophit (วันคล้ายวันสวรรคตพระบาทสมเด็จพระปรมินทรมหาภูมิพลอดุลยเดช บรมนาถบพิตร). Public offices and schools are closed; however, the language school where I work is open although all of my Thai students called and cancelled their lessons today.

Following is a schedule of the main events for the remainder of the mourning and cremation periods:

October 15
  • General practice run of the funeral procession in Bangkok
October 21
  • Final general practice run of the funeral procession in Bangkok
October 25
  • 18:00 (UTC+07:00): final night vigil services before the Royal Urn and Coffin at the Dusit Maha Phasat Throne Hall of the Grand Palace, Bangkok
OCTOBER 26  national cremation services
  • 07:00: morning services and farewell ceremony of the Royal Urn and Coffin followed by breakfast
  • 09:00 – 11:30: funeral procession from the Dusit Maha Phasat Throne Hall to the Royal Crematorium at the Sanam Luang Royal Plaza
  • 16:45: afternoon memorial service
  • 17:30: ceremonial first lighting of the funeral pyre and final honours by the 3rd Battalion, 1st Infantry Regiment, King’s Own Bodyguard and the 1st Artillery Battalion, King’s Guard on behalf of the Royal Thai Armed Forces (three-volley salute and 21-gun salute)
  • 22:00: royal cremation proper and outdoor Khon performances, puppet show and musical concert lasting until 06:00 October 27
October 27 – day of the removal of the royal ashes and relics (Śarīras)
  • 07:00: removal of the royal ashes and relics from the crematorium followed by a breakfast service
  • 10:00: royal procession of the transfer of the royal ashes and relics to the Dusit Maha Phasat Throne Hall of the Grand Palace
October 28
  • 17:30: final service before the royal relics and ashes and dinner
October 29
  • 10:00: departure honors of the royal relics and procession
  • 10:35: ceremony of internment of the royal relics to the Chakri Maha Prasat Throne Hall of the Grand Palace
  • 16:00: departure honors of the royal ashes
  • 17:40: internment service of the royal ashes at the Royal Cemetery at Wat Ratchabophit followed by a procession to the Wat Bowonniwet Vihara Royal Temple and a final memorial service

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