Thailand’s government said that a regent will be the caretaker of the monarchy while the country mourns the death of King Bhumibol Adulyadej. Thais in their thousands, dressed in somber black and white, descended on the Grand Palace in Bangkok on Saturday to pay respects to Bhumibol, but were met with the unexpected closure of the complex.
The crowds lining outside since dawn were subdued and orderly despite the swelling numbers. People shared food and handed each other water and wet towels to cope with the Southeast Asian heat. Around midmorning, police announced the palace was closed for seven days. Still, most people waiting remained outside and authorities soon announced entry would be allowed into the palace’s Sala Sahathai Samakhom Hall as a place to pay respects for limited hours in the afternoon. The government on Thursday unexpectedly announced that the heir apparent, Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, did not want to be immediately named king to give the nation time to mourn.
Deputy Prime Minister Wissanu Krea-ngam appeared on television Friday evening to specifically explain that the head of the Privy Council, which is an advisory body to the king, is automatically the regent until a new monarch is crowned. There was no official statement that the council’s head, 96-year-old Prem Tinsulanonda, had been named regent, creating uncertainty, but Wissanu said an announcement wasn’t needed because the process is mandated by Thailand’s Constitution. Prem, a former prime minister, was also one of Bhumibol’s principal confidants.
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For ordinary Thais, the overwhelming focus was on grieving for Bhumibol, not the succession. “I haven’t even started to think about that, I’m still in mourning over the king,” said Rakchadaporn Unnankad, a 24-year-old Bangkok office worker.
“I left home at 6 a.m to come here,” she said. “We were queuing for so long before they told us that we can’t go inside the palace. There were people who have been here since 4-5 a.m.,” she said. “My tears started flowing out of me without my realizing,” she said, recalling the news of Bhumibol’s death. “I didn’t even want to hear the announcement.”
Buddhist funeral ceremonies began at the Grand Palace on Friday after a royal motorcade led by a van carrying Bhumibol’s body and monks drove to the palace from nearby Siriraj Hospital, where the king died Thursday aged 88. People sat four to five rows deep on both sides of the road, sobbing openly and bowing as the convoy passed. Most held portraits of the king in regal yellow robes. Some pulled currency notes from their wallets: all bank notes carry the king’s face. Many had camped 24 hours since Thursday.
Bhumibol’s death after 70 years on the throne was a momentous event in Thailand, where the monarch has been glorified as an anchor for a fractious society that for decades has been turned on its head by frequent coups. Thailand suffered particularly intense political turmoil in the past 10 years that pitted arch-royalists against forces seeking a redistribution of economic and political power. But in recent years, Bhumibol had suffered from a variety of illnesses and seemed far removed from the upheavals of Thai politics, including the 2014 coup that brought Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, 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 factionalized population,” said Tom Pepinsky, a Southeast 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 Vajiralongkorn, who does not command the same respect his father did.
Another mourner, Suchart Warachawanwanich, said it was “appropriate” to not immediately accept the crown and let the nation grieve first. A one-year mourning period for the government has been declared together with a 30-day moratorium on state and official events. But no substantial demands have been made of the private sector. The government has only urged people to refrain from organizing entertainment events for a month, apparently mindful of the need to ensure that the sputtering economy, which relies heavily on tourism, does not suffer too much.