When Bhumibol Adulyadej dies, Buddhist priests will place nine sheets of gold leaf inscribed with sacred text on the nine principal parts of his body, according to the fifteenth-century palace law that governs royalty. Members of his family and the Royal Wardrobes Department will dress his corpse in silk clothes – including gloves, socks and a hat – as well as ‘heavy gold bracelets, anklets, and rings, and a golden mask … symbolic of the radiant visage of a god’. A gold ring will be placed in his mouth. After a pause, his body will be manoeuvred into a seated position:
The trunk is lifted, the palms joined opposite the face by means of an iron clamp, a sort of wedge is placed under the chin, and the knees are lifted to the level of the hands and tied in a sitting position. The corpse, thus seated, is placed on sixteen long strips of cotton material, the ends of which are raised and tied over the top of the head.
Bhumibol’s personal crown will be placed on his head, and ‘a heavy gold chain studded with diamonds’ around his neck. Then ‘the dead king … arrayed in richer attire than he ever wore in his lifetime’ will be wedged inside an inner urn ‘of silver, with a lid that can be hermetically sealed’, which is in turn placed inside an octagonal outer urn ‘of great magnificence, being of gold ornamented with the nine gems and capped by a tapering pyramidal spire’. This will be taken to the Grand Palace and placed on a catafalque under a nine-tiered white umbrella. His body will remain inside the urn for months or years, as monks chant continuously day and night beside it and Bhumibol’s favourite dishes, prepared by palace chefs, are placed in front of the catafalque at mealtimes. On set days of the week, for a few hours, ordinary Thais will be allowed to come and pay their respects. A period of mourning will be declared. According to the US embassy: ‘Public celebrations would certainly be canceled, and most Thais would find it inappropriate to attend concerts or other entertainment events, at least during the early part of the mourning period’ (07BANGKOK5718). Until the reign of Rama IV it was compulsory for all Thais to shave their heads during the mourning period, but this practice has been discontinued.
As the king’s corpse decomposes, its fluids will gradually leak out of the urn. Quaritch Wales described the mechanics of the process in his account of past royal embalmments:
The base of the inner Urn is in the form of an iron grating, and from the outer Urn a copper tube passed down into the hollow catafalque where the depositions accumulated in a golden vase. Access to the interior of the catafalque was obtained by means of a small door on the western face, and each alternate day until the corpse was dry and no further liquids dripped from the tube, that is to say until about two months after death, an attendant entered and removed the vase.
A huge funeral pyre, symbolizing Mount Meru, will be built in Sanam Luang, the park beside the Grand Palace. In past centuries the pyre was surrounded by a host of other temporary buildings, including ‘a large refreshment hall where all except the lowest classes could obtain food and drinks without charge; stands for the letting off of fireworks; and a great variety of theatrical entertainments and other side-shows’. However, according to Quaritch Wales, ‘With the exception of the refreshment hall, all these were abolished in accordance with the wish of King Rama V, who considered that such celebrations did not harmonize with the dignity which ought to characterize the royal obsequies.’
On the designated cremation day, the king’s body will be removed from the urn, and all the clothes and gold ornaments removed. In past cremations, wrote Quaritch Wales, ‘Only the bones remained, and these, if they fell to pieces, were rearranged in the form of a human skeleton.’ After being washed in coconut water, the bones will be tied up in a white cloth and replaced in the inner urn, which will be carried on a palanquin and taken to the ‘Great Funeral Car’, a wheeled vehicle pulled by attendants. A huge procession of soldiers, palace officials and priests, some blowing conch shells, will accompany the urn to the funeral pyre. The urn will be placed in the pyre, and at sunset the new monarch will light a symbolic fire. This moment will be ‘greeted by the roar of cannon, a fanfare of trumpets, and the playing of the National Anthem’. Around 10 p.m., the ceremonial fire burning at the top of the pyre will be allowed to spread and consume the whole structure. The following morning, holy water will be poured on the ashes, which will be ‘given roughly the form of a human figure with the head turned towards the east’, then ‘stirred up and reformed with the head turned towards the west’, and finally stirred up and faced towards the east again – symbolizing ‘the rising, setting, and again rising of the sun’ and ‘birth, death, and rebirth’. Relics of Bhumibol’s body will be collected, perfumed and preserved. The whole spectacle is designed to demonstrate the grandeur of royalty and pretend that kings never really die:
It is particularly important that a Royal Cremation should be celebrated with the greatest possible pomp, because death is the greatest danger that the idea of divine kingship has to combat. It strikes right at the roots of the whole conception, and instils doubt into the minds of a people who, until recently, had not dared even to contemplate the possibility of a king suffering from any mortal infliction; and now, with the spread of western education, modern scepticism, and the shadow of communism, the Royal Cremation plays an even bigger part than formerly in impressing on the people that the king is not dead, but has migrated to a higher plane, where he will work out his destiny as a Bodhisattva for the good of all beings.
The ceremonies for Bhumibol’s death and cremation will be little different to the rituals enacted centuries ago in Ayutthaya. Much else about Thailand’s contemporary crisis has echoes in the distant past, too.
Throughout Thai history, the looming death of the king has unleashed conflict and scheming among the elite as they struggle to ensure the next monarch is somebody they can control. The establishment’s desperate efforts to prevent Vajiralongkorn becoming King Rama X have dominated elite-level politics since 2005. The prospect of Thaksin and the crown prince using the vast wealth of the Crown Property Bureau to transform Thailand and elevate a new ruling class at the expense of the old terrifies the oligarchy that runs the country. Throughout his reign, Bhumibol was a pliant and mostly powerless monarch who tended to do what he was told. Vajiralongkorn, in alliance with Thaksin, would be a very different prospect. The old elite would no longer be able to use insider palace deals and royal patronage to maintain – and sanctify – their dominance. Not only would they lose access to the economic advantages conferred by the favouritism of the Crown Property Bureau, but they would also no longer be able to draw on the social status and political influence that derive from perceived closeness to the palace. Thaksin, if he succeeds in playing kingmaker for Vajiralongkorn, hopes to be richly rewarded. He is as obsessed by royal succession as his opponents. Fixated on their own narrow self-interest, Thaksin and the old establishment are waging a fight to the death, ignoring the aspirations of ordinary Thais. Both sides have sought to provoke killings and chaos as part of their strategy. Both sides have systematically undermined the rule of law and sought to co-opt institutions that should be impartial. Neither side appears to care how much collateral damage they cause. Thailand’s economy has been stunted by years of conflict, and the livelihoods of most of its people have suffered. The country has become bitterly polarized, with communities and families riven by animosity. The rights of ordinary Thais have been repeatedly denied.
This elite war of succession will rage until Bhumibol dies. There is little prospect of any deal or accommodation between the feuding factions ending the crisis, because neither side can trust the other to keep its promises when the succession happens. For the leading figures behind the elite struggle against Thaksin and Vajiralongkorn, there is no way back now. They have committed themselves, and the losers in the conflict will be mercilessly crushed by the winning side. As Chairat Charoensin-o-larn says, Thai politics have gone ‘beyond the point of accommodation’: ‘Each side is waiting for the right moment to wage a total war to eradicate the other side in the conflict in order to set up a hegemony’. And so, for as long as the king remains alive, Thailand will be convulsed by chronic instability. US ambassador Eric John warned in 2008: ‘The political turmoil may well persist for years, until the passing of the King and the subsequent redefinition of the place of the monarchy in 21st century Thailand’ (08BANGKOK3289). A Credit Suisse research report in January 2014 predicted that ‘street protests and frequent changes of government could scar the political landscape for several more years’. These gloomy forecasts are realistic. Thailand’s medium-term future looks extremely bleak.
The same forces that drove the rise and decline of Southeast Asian kingdoms throughout the past millennium are at work in twenty-first century Thailand. The power struggles of the elite have dramatically weakened the fabric of the centralized Bangkok state and caused a crisis of legitimacy for the monarchy. Insurgency and resistance in ethnic Malay Muslim communities in southern Thailand have intensified. In the old kingdom of Lanna in northern Thailand, and in the Isaan region in the north-east, talk of secession has become increasingly common. More than 20,000 rural communities have declared themselves ‘Red villages’, pledging their loyalty to Thaksin. The monarchy is openly criticized by villagers in these communities, an extraordinary change from their overwhelming royalism just a decade ago. The mandala state is shrinking. Thailand is unravelling at the edges.
Since 2006, Thailand’s traditional elite have inflicted one disaster after another upon themselves and the country. Their efforts to sabotage the succession by suppressing popular sovereignty have stirred anger and resentment among millions of ordinary Thais, but they seem intent on continuing to pursue this disastrous strategy. They have failed to grasp that if they keep removing elected governments they will face a popular uprising by Thais who refuse to accept their rights being repeatedly denied and their votes routinely ignored. The people of twenty-first-century Thailand will not allow democracy to be taken away without a fight.
The longer the military holds power without allowing free and fair elections, the higher the risk that significant civil unrest will erupt. The only way the elite can hope to impose their will on an increasingly restive population is through force. Hard-line members of the Thai elite are actively discussing such a scenario, emboldened by events in Cairo in 2013 when the Egyptian military demonstrated that even in the era of social media and global news coverage an army can crush civilian opposition if it is willing to be brutal enough and ignore international opinion. But given the ideological divisions and factionalism within the Thai army, it is unlikely to be either willing or able to enforce the dominance of the old establishment. The military has killed far more Thais than enemy combatants over the past century, but if soldiers are told to turn their guns on their own people once again, many may refuse to do so this time. Thailand’s military would probably split, and the country would tumble into civil war. Army leaders are unlikely to risk such a scenario. The attempted assassination of Thaksin or Vajiralongkorn, or some of their leading allies, is increasingly likely as the old establishment grows more isolated and desperate. Wild talk of kidnap and assassination has become increasingly commonplace among the ruling class. A few bullets, they believe, could fix the situation once and for all.
As the elite drag Thailand deeper into conflict, discussion of their war over the succession remains criminalized. Use of the lèse-majesté law to silence debate and dissent has dramatically escalated since 2006. The unpredictability and apparent arbitrariness of who gets hit with lèse-majestécharges, and the grotesquely disproportionate punishments they usually receive, recall the random eruptions of royal violence and cruelty in Ayutthaya centuries ago. The intended psychological impact on the population is the same: the establishment hopes to inculcate fear and obedience by making an example of the unlucky few and destroying their lives. But they are fighting a losing battle: the lèse-majesté law has become a profound embarrassment for Thailand; despite blocking hundreds of thousands of web pages, the authorities have been unable to prevent discussion of the monarchy and succession, particularly on social media. Draconian enforcement of the law is likely to persist until well after the royal succession – both sides in the conflict over the throne want to use the law to suppress scrutiny of their actions.
There is no doubt that Bhumibol’s death will be traumatic for the millions of Thais who genuinely revere their king. Millions more, who have already lost faith in the monarchy and no longer support it, are likely to feel grave anxiety, due to widespread expectations that the succession will unleash a period of severe conflict and instability. But in fact, while it is highly possible that violence will erupt in the days and weeks after Rama IX dies, it is likely to lead to a period of greater stability. Thailand cannot be at peace while he is alive. Only his death can bring the kingdom’s crisis towards a resolution.
An extremely long mourning period is likely to be announced after Bhumibol dies. The most plausible forecast is 999 days, given the symbolic importance of the number nine in the iconography of his reign. The palace propaganda machine will be cranked up to full blast, with the military and the establishment attempting to manipulate the genuine grief of millions of Thais to conceal succession machinations and try to use Bhumibol’s exalted reputation to legitimize whatever arrangements they engineer afterwards. As Peter Jackson has argued, the king has already become a ‘virtual deity’ – to his followers, he is a magical semi-divine figure, and the ruling class have long planned to exploit his sacred aura even years after his death. But this is no longer a viable possibility in twenty-first-century Thailand: too many people have lost faith in the monarchy since the 2006 coup, and after Bhumibol dies all his secrets will finally spill out – his accidental killing of his brother, his involvement in the events that led to the 1976 Thammasat massacre, his acquiescence to the 2006 coup, and his lifelong hostility to democracy. Bhumibol is no longer a unifying figure in Thailand. The elite cannot rely on his aura to protect them after he dies.
Bhumibol could prevent a battle over his successor by abdicating before he dies and proclaiming Vajiralongkorn his chosen heir. But the likelihood of the king taking active steps to influence events has diminished to almost zero – he appears too incapacitated and too unaware of what is happening to make a decisive intervention. So it remains probable that his death will unleash significant instability. Opponents of Vajiralongkorn are likely to make a desperate effort to keep him off the throne. It will require an element of constitutional chicanery – some legalistic basis will have to be found to justify blocking Vajiralongkorn, perhaps by falsely claiming that the king left instructions on a posthumous change to his choice of heir, or invoking Article 10 of the 1924 Palace Law, or leaking details of crimes allegedly committed by the prince or diseases he is believed to suffer from to justify claims that he is unfit to reign. There will also have to be a military element to the plan; Vajiralongkorn is aware the royal succession is likely to be contested and has been quietly consolidating power over the past decade, putting allies in important ministries andinstitutions, and expanding his personal force of soldiers who report directly to him. He is ready to fight for his right to reign if necessary. Thailand’s military would need to quickly find a way to neutralize the crown prince’s forces – and perhaps capture or even kill him. After that, some way would need to be found to ensure parliament formally approved their alternative candidate for monarch. And all of this needs to happen quickly. If the plan hits a roadblock, for a few days or even a few hours, it is likely to fall apart and Vajiralongkorn will be king.
Any plan to sabotage the succession is likely to involve appointing Princess Sirindhorn as regent to reign on behalf of one of Vajiralongkorn’s younger sons. For most of her life, she went out of her way to signal that she had no intention of challenging her brother – she never married, never had children, and spread word that she would retire to a special residential compound near Beijing after Bhumibol’s death. ‘A majority of royal watchers we have talked to, including many who know her well, predict she will quietly leave the country once her father passes, for both the stability of the country and her own personal safety, leaving the Thai stage to her brother’, stated a secret US cable from 2009 (09BANGKOK2967). However, Sirindhorn began explicitly signalling support for anti-government protests in late 2013, although less clumsily than her younger sister Chulabhorn, and royal sources confirm she backs efforts to block Vajiralongkorn becoming king. Given her unique position as the closest person to Bhumibol, she is well-placed to control the information he receives and also to misrepresent his purported wishes after he dies. The king was socially isolated throughout his reign, which made him easy to manipulate. This is even more the case as he approaches his death.
The probability of a challenge to the crown prince is dismissed by many analysts because of the damage it would do to a monarchy already haemorrhaging legitimacy and popular support. What they fail to understand is that the Thai ruling class do not want a strong, politically independent palace – they want a monarch they can manage. The prospect of Thailand becoming a genuine constitutional monarchy after Bhumibol’s death, with a powerless ceremonial king or queen, is far more acceptable to the traditional elite than the risk of an aggressive and vengeful monarch who hates them. They want to remain in control of the immense fortune of the Crown Property Bureau, and they want to continue to bask in the aura of royal patronage, even if the palace is a shadow of what it once was. Their nightmare is not a weakened monarchy; it is a hostile monarch who refuses to serve their interests.
The longer Bhumibol remains alive, however, the greater the chance that Vajiralongkorn becomes King Rama X without a significant challenge. Most of the succession conflict will have already been fought, before the king’s death rather than after. Many of the most virulent opponents of the prince among the royalist elite – in particular Prem Tinsulanonda, privy council president – are extremely elderly and their power is ebbing away. The junta that seized power in 2014 is more pragmatic than the aged members of the privy council and more willing to allow Vajiralongkorn to become king, as long as they feel they can control him and crush Thaksin’s political influence once and for all.
Once the succession question is decisively settled – through the victory of the crown prince or an alternative candidate – then political progress will become possible once again. With the elite no longer fighting over the spoils of succession, and the power of the palace waning, there will be room for incremental improvements in Thai democracy and human rights – and the possibility of sudden revolutionary change. The most extraordinary development of the past decade is that Thailand’s poor have developed sophisticated political consciousness and become aware of what is wrong with their country. They understand the games the ruling class have played throughout history, and they are no longer willing to play. They want real democracy and they want their rights to be respected. They will not take no for an answer forever.
In July 2006, the embattled Thaksin Shinawatra told America’s ambassador over a steak lunch in an expensive Bangkok restaurant that he was sick of a sclerotic unelected elite running Thailand behind the scenes, and ‘wanted to flip on the lights and flush out the ghosts’ (06BANGKOK4041). Whatever his political future, whether he returns in triumph to rule Thailand or dies in exile a defeated man, Thaksin’s enduring contribution to his country is that the lights are now on, and the ghosts have nowhere to hide. The future may be uncertain and frightening for many Thais. But for a country cursed by the legacy of its history, just looking to the future at all – and talking about it openly – represents a victory over the dead hand of the past.