Tens of thousands of Thai mourners thronged Saturday to the palace complex where King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s body is being kept, as the government said a regent would be the caretaker of the monarchy until the crown prince takes over following his father’s death. Dressed in somber black and white, people from all over the country converged at the complex in Bangkok’s historic center. Bhumibol died Thursday after prolonged illnesses that had incapacitated many of his organs. He was 88.
But confusion reigned outside the complex as police announced that it was closed for seven days. A while later, the complex gates were opened for people to visit one of the halls. The king’s body, which is being kept in another building, will not be revealed to the public for another 15 days, authorities said. 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 tropical heat.
While announcing the king’s death, the prime minister had said that the heir apparent, Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, would ascend the throne. But hours later he said that the prince did not want to be immediately named king because he wanted more time to grieve along with the rest of the nation. Deputy Prime Minister Wissanu Krea-ngam appeared on television Friday evening to explain that the head of the Privy Council, 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 one of Bhumibol’s principal confidants and has ties to Bhumibol’s popular daughter, Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn. 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. 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 or 5 am.”
“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 Friday night after a royal motorcade brought Bhumibol’s body from nearby Siriraj Hospital to the Grand Palace complex.
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. Over the past 10 years, Thailand has suffered particularly intense political turmoil pitting arch-royalists against those seeking a redistribution of economic and political power, allied with Thaksin Shinawatra, a populist prime minister ousted in a 2006 coup. 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 current 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 will be undermined by the crowning of Vajiralongkorn, who does not command the same respect his father did. Another mourner, 48-year-old 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.