LONDON – On Oct. 26, the body of Thailand’s late king, Bhumibol Adulyadej, will be cremated, signaling the complete end of a magical era. For months, the Thai government has prepared for an event of the century — a royal funeral. The cost of Bhumibol’s funeral is estimated at $90 million.
The funeral will last five days, beginning Oct. 25 with the final night vigil services in front of the royal urn and coffin at the Dusit Maha Prasart Throne Hall inside the Grand Palace. The next day, the coffin that holds the body of King Bhumibol will be transported on the royal chariot, pulled by hundreds of men. It will leave the Grand Palace and reach the main crematorium located in Sanam Luang, the huge square reserved for state ceremonies.
A pyre made of rare “kalamet” tree wood will be lit at 5:30 p.m., when the king will be cremated. The next day, his ashes will be collected in a specially made urn to be placed inside the Grand Palace at Chakri Mahaprasart Hall. Both the cremation and the collection of ashes will be televised nationally. It is expected that Thais will show their last respect to the man they believe was the country’s greatest king in modern times.
Why has Bhumibol been extolled as the greatest king in contemporary Thailand? Crowned in 1946 after the accidental death of his brother, King Ananda, Bhumibol successfully transformed the declining monarchy into the most important political institution in the country. He worked intimately with the army throughout the Cold War with the support of the United States. Together, they were able to turn Thailand into a pro-U.S., anti-communist and pro-monarchy country.
At the peak of the Bhumibol era, a network monarchy was established. To understand Thai politics, one must look at it as a kind of network. The most powerful political network since the 1970s has been network monarchy — a consortium that consisted of the military, big business, bureaucrats and royalists.
The network monarchy was tasked with dominating politics whereby civilian governments must be kept weak and vulnerable. Should they pose a threat to the network monarchy, they would be toppled in a coup. This explains why Thailand has had 21 coups since the abolition of the monarchy in 1932.
Meanwhile, Bhumibol’s long reign was made authoritative. Royal courtiers embarked on constructing a “neo-royalism” ideology that rests on three important characteristics: “being sacred, popular and democratic.” King Bhumibol was sacralised and transformed into Dhammaraja, or god-king, encapsulated within the protective walls of a lese majeste law forbidding insult and defamation against him. Yet he was a popular Dhammaraja, down to earth and citizen-centric. Similarly, Bhumibol’s image of a democratic king was consistently sculpted and tweaked despite the fact that his periodic political interventions frequently exposed his disdain for democratic governments.
Having been on the throne for almost 70 years, Bhumibol was the world’s longest reigning monarch. Palace propaganda based on lavish celebration of Bhumibol through national education and the mainstream printed and visual media molded the persona of the king into one of rigid embodiment; anything less than this will not be accepted.
But this poses an immense challenge for the current monarch, King Maha Vajiralongkorn, the sole heir apparent, to follow in the footsteps of his charismatic father. The neo-royalism ideology serves not only as a measure of the success of Bhumibol, but also as a useful instrument to project the future of the Thai monarchy after Bhumibol is cremated.
Matching Bhumibol’s charisma and divinity represents a great challenge for Vajiralongkorn. They are nontransferable qualities and personal properties. But an even greater challenge lies in the fact that due to a lack of moral authority and support from the inner circles of the palace, Vajiralongkorn will not be able to fully command politics. This situation has scared Thai political elites. They fear that Vajiralongkorn will fail to defend their political benefits once under the protection of Bhumibol.
A well-known royalist reportedly said, “After the royal cremation, everyone is at his own risk.” This could only imply that the new reign under Vajiralongkorn could be marked by uncertainties, chaos and even violence. Why is this so?
Since Vajiralongkorn was on the throne, there has been no indication he is interested in promoting democracy. On the contrary, he has striven to consolidate royal power, which is largely constrained within the constitution. For example, he removed those who were close to his father and replaced them with his own confidants. He reorganized the Privy Council, once considered an engine that drove the network monarchy, now making it an insignificant institution.
He has taken full control of the Crown Property Bureau, making him one of the richest monarchs in the world. He uses speedy promotion to reward his cronies, and similarly undermines his opponents through speedy demotion. His eccentric lifestyle, shown through his wearing of a skinny tank top with fake tattoos in Munich, where he is mostly based today, serves to erode the prestige of the monarchy. Could this lead to a new round of the decline of the Thai royal institution?
Because of some uncertainties that accompany the new reign, it remains to be seen how King Vajiralongkorn will forge ties with the army. Under Bhumibol, the military was assigned a fierce defender of the royal institution. Under Vajiralongkorn, the military could be stripped of certain powers at the expense of increasing royal absolutism. The key to the monarchy’s stability is support from the army, but whether Vajiralongkorn realizes this fact is unknown.
So, on Oct. 26, Thais will wave a last goodbye to their beloved king. In many ways, his cremation will leave Thailand in the cold. At least Thailand under Bhumibol was predictable. The same cannot be said now that Thailand is under his son.
Pavin Chachavalpongpun is an associate professor at Kyoto University’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies. He is currently a senior visiting fellow at the Center for International Studies, London School of Economics and Political Science.