Grief-stricken Thais mourn death of beloved king Bhumibol

Grief-stricken Thais mourn death of beloved king Bhumibol


Thailand began its first day in 70 years without a king on Friday in a profound state of mourning, as the crown prince asked for more time before ascending the throne following the death of his father and the world’s longest-reigning monarch, Bhumibol Adulyadej.

The government declared a public holiday and people across the nation dressed in black, their eyes swollen and red with hours of weeping.

Many were still breaking down in a spontaneous outburst of emotion that reflected the deep love and respect Bhumibol commanded in Thailand.

The 88-year-old king had spent much of the last decade in hospital with a variety of ailments, and the news of his death, announced in a palace statement on Thursday, had long been both anticipated and feared. But the nation remained stable and life continued largely as usual with most shops, banks and tourist sites open.

A one-year mourning period for the government has been declared together with a 30-day moratorium on state and official events. But, as previously speculated, no demands have been made of the private sector.

The government has only urged people to refrain from organising entertainment events for a month, apparently mindful of the need to ensure that the sputtering economy does not suffer.

Tourism is one of Thailand’s biggest revenue earners, and entertainment remains an integral part of it.

The public holiday was declared on Friday morning after people had already gone to work. The stock market and banks remained open, as did Thai embassies worldwide. After plunging for days, the Thai stock market opened higher, rising more than 4% in morning trading in a sign of renewed confidence in the economy.

“The stock market, investments, other businesses should not stop. Do not try to let the country lose its credibility, especially in the case of impact on the stock exchange,” Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha said.

In Bangkok, residents began lining the streets where the king’s body was expected to pass on Friday afternoon in a royal procession from Siriraj Hospital to the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, or Wat Phra Kaew, which is located on the grounds of the ornate Grand Palace.

“It is a great loss for Thai people,” said Siwanart Phra-Anan, on office worker in the financial district. “His Majesty will be in Thai people’s hearts forever.”

“I’m lost for words because, since I was born, I had him as a father of the nation and he unified us,” said another, Siwanee Varikornsakul. “I’ve never been in this situation before. I don’t know what to say. My heart is numb.”

Premier Prayuth said late on Thursday that Bhumibol’s son, Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, will succeed the king under the constitution. But he added that the prince had asked for more time to mourn with the nation before ascending the throne. No date has been set for his coronation.

It is not clear who the regent is in the absence of a king and what are the constitutional implications.

Television channels were running non-stop footage devoted to the life of the king, who was deeply revered and held up as a unifying figure in the politically fractious country despite two coups in the last decade alone.

Most Thais have seen no other king in their lifetime and thought of Bhumibol, who reigned for 70 years, as their father and the embodiment of goodness and godliness.

Although a constitutional monarch, he wielded enormous political power and served as a unifying figure during Thailand’s numerous political crises. But in recent years, he suffered from a variety of illnesses that affected his kidneys, brain, lungs, heart and blood. He remained publicly detached from recent political upheavals, including the 2014 coup that brought Mr Prayuth, an army general, to power.

“His death means that the Thai political system must find an alternative focal point around which to unite the country’s factionalised population,” said Tom Pepinsky, a South East Asia expert at Cornell University.

He said one challenge that royalists will face is the possibility that the monarchy’s popularity would be undermined by the crowning of Prince Vajiralongkorn, who does not command the same respect his father did.

Bhumibol Adulyadej became king in 1946. He anchored the South East Asian country through violent upheavals at home and communist revolutions next door with a blend of majesty and a common touch.

He was so revered that his portraits were displayed in virtually every Thai home and business, generally depicting him in arduous travels to remote villages, where he often went to see the situation of his subjects first hand.

But recently, whenever he appeared in public, he was in a wheelchair, waving feebly at his subjects. Even those rare appearances stopped as he became confined to hospital.

He died peacefully a little before 4pm on Thursday, the palace said.

“He is now in heaven and may be looking over Thai citizens from there,” Mr Prayuth said in a statement. “He was a king that was loved and adored by all. The reign of the king has ended and his kindness cannot be found anywhere else.”

Messages of condolences poured in from across the world.

“With a creative spirit and a drive for innovation, he pioneered new technologies that have rightfully received worldwide acclaim,” said US President Barack Obama. “His majesty leaves a legacy of care for the Thai people that will be cherished by future generations.”

French President Francois Hollande hailed the king for “exceptional human qualities … his profound sense of justice, his care for modernity and sustainable development”.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi described him as “one of the tallest leaders of our times”.

Besides Prince Vajiralongkorn, the king is survived by his 84-year-old wife, Sirikit, who herself has been ailing and rarely seen in public in years.

The couple have three daughters – Princess Sirindhorn, the most beloved royal after her father, Princess Ubolratana and Princess Chulabhorn Walailak.

Princess Sirindhorn is unmarried; Princess Ubolratna is divorced from her American husband and their two daughters live in the US; and Princess Chulabhorn is also divorced and has two daughters.

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