One of the first things I noticed about Bangkok the first time I visited was the photos of the King everywhere. I am not talking about 8 x 10’s – oh no, most were billboard size. Every house and every business had a photo of him. He had ruled for years and was the longest ruling leader in the world. King Rama IX as he was known died on Oct.13, 2016. I presumed all of his photos would be replaced by photos of his son, Maha Vajiralongkorn who assumed the throne on Dec. 1, 2016.
The Royal family do not actually rule Thailand, but they do have a massive influence. King Bhumibol Adulyadej brought many in his country of about 68 million people to tears when he died at age 88 after 70 years in power. He had stopped coups, spearheaded rural infrastructure projects and met commoners in rough or squalid conditions. His actions helped strengthen people’s confidence in their country with an otherwise wobbly government.
To my surprise almost all of the royal photos are now black and white ones of the former King. There are paintings of him everywhere, and the entire country is truly in mourning. Many people wear black tshirts or golf shirts every day with the Thai number 9 – to represent the past King. Women wear brooches in the shape of the 9. Markets sell huge numbers of tshirts that say “I was born during the reign of Rama IX” both in English and Thai. I was in Bangkok over the New Year and was told there would be a massive turnout at the Palace on NYE to honour the dead King. It was amazing to see the massive number of people, dressed in black from head to toe, many carrying pictures of the King, many in tears. Everywhere I traveled people were getting their photos taken with pictures of the King. At McDonalds, they have a self order machine, and every second screen that appears is a black and white photo of the past King. Every government building is surrounded by black ribbon, and I have seen some eight story buildings that have black fabric at least six feet wide that hangs from the roof to the ground. Every Metro station has a huge memorial with fresh flowers and a condolence book to sign. There is to be a year of mourning, and the celebrations for New Years this year were very subdued – no fireworks etc.
Thailand has the toughest “lese-majeste” laws in the world. These laws protect the Royal family from insults or threats. As a result discussions about their Royalty are very restricted – penalties start with 15 years in prison. The new King is not popular, but no one will say so. When I asked my Thai friends what they thought of the new King, they would just roll their eyes. He is in his 60s’, has lived in Europe most of his life. He has been divorced three times.
I wonder when the year of mourning is over if his picture will be as prominently as his father’s.