BANGKOK, Thailand -- King Bhumibol Adulyadej's death at age 88 on
October 13 has plunged Thailand into the deepest political and
emotional trauma in the lifetime of its people, breaking millions of
hearts, creating an unpredictable leadership situation for the
military government, and prompting widespread fear and pessimism about
this often violent nation's future.
"Dear all Thai people, His Majesty the King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the
Ninth of His Dynasty, has passed away," announced Prime Minister
Prayuth Chan-ocha on national TV several hours after the monarch's
"Long live His Majesty the King of the New Reign," he said,
indicating King Bhumibol's only son, 64-year-old Crown Prince Maha
Vajiralongkorn, will be confirmed as Thailand's new monarch.
In 1972, when he was Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, he became the
royal heir in a ceremony that was later engraved onto a commemorative
currency note, showing the younger man kneeling in front of his
He will become the 10th in the Chakri dynasty line -- to be known as Rama X.
Vajiralongkorn cannot be crowned by anyone else because of the
exalted position of Thai kings, and instead must place the crown on
his own head.
"The government will inform the National Legislative Assembly that
His Majesty the King, who is now residing in his royal coffin, has
already designated an Heir Apparent in accordance with the Succession
Law," Mr. Prayuth said.
Unlike the wrenching national mourning in the U.S. when President
John F. Kennedy was assassinated, or in Britain when Princess Diana
died in a car crash, many Thais' reaction to King Bhumibol's death in
hospital is an extremely personal, visceral and emotional crushing of
their own spirit and lives.
As news of his death spread during late afternoon in this
Buddhist-majority society, many people openly wept with almost
Executives in offices stopped work to nervously watch official
confirmation and news broadcasts, and began crying at their desks,
unable to fathom their own future and the fate of this country.
Others prayed or were reduced to stunned, grim silence.
"Do you think there will be violence now?" one teary-eyed financial
manager asked her friend who replied: "I don't know, but I'm going
to stock up on a lot of food, just in case there are problems."
Both women asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of
Bangkok and other major cities remained calm.
TV channels broadcast newsreels of the king's life.
A major security alert is currently in effect in Bangkok after
police several days ago announced the possibility of a "car bomb
attack" by unidentified people in the capital -- presumably unrelated
to the monarchy's transition.
Initial sketchy reports said authorities suspected minority
Malay-Thai Islamist separatists based in southern Thailand may be
involved in the alleged car bomb plot.
Many Thais depended on King Bhumibol who was continuously presented
as a benevolent "untarnished" paternal figure.
Bhumibol, an ordained Buddhist monk, was also blessed by Hindu
Brahmin priests, melding Buddhism with earlier Hinduism and infusing
his reign with both religions' rituals, regalia and beliefs.
His royal family symbols derived from Hindu gods included Vishnu's
discus and Shiva's trident.
Some Thais regarded him as a "deva raja," an ancient concept
originating in Vedic-era India, which can translate as a monarch who
possesses some of the powers of Hindu gods, resulting in a "gods'
Others more popularly perceived him as a "dhamma raja" or "dharma
raja" -- a king who embodies Hindu and Theravada Buddhist teachings.
As a result, many Thais believed he selflessly protected them from
political, economic, natural and spiritual dangers.
Bhumibol's devotees had been worried in recent years that his
approaching death might dissipate that protection, and unleash
squabbling politicians, corrupt officials, malevolent spirits and
"His Majesty gave us minorities the protection from being targeted
for looking different," said Raj Palsingh, a turbaned Sikh in Bangkok.
"That's the kind of loving leadership he was," Mr. Palsingh tweeted
hours after the king's death was announced.
Public schools teach children how to crawl and prostrate ("graab")
on all fours -- even when they become adults -- in front of all past
and present Thai kings and their royal families either in person or,
more often, larger-than-life royal photographs on special occasions.
Born on December 5, 1927, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, his birthday
was honored each year by the American Embassy in Bangkok which mounted
a large portrait of the king on its outer wall along busy Wireless
Road to display Washington's respect.
"We urge U.S. citizens visiting or residing in Thailand to join us
in showing respect by maintaining decorum during this extended period
of profound mourning," the U.S. Embassy said in an e-mail titled:
"Message for U.S. Citizens: The Passing of His Majesty the King."
Many Thais also sincerely described Bhumibol as a flawless,
generous, brilliant and humble person -- and usually referred to him
as their "father".
They now worry that his death weakens the possibility that anyone
else can duplicate the way he personified the idealized essence of
Thailand's cultural and Buddhist values.
For decades, popular perceptions of the soft-spoken monarch were
caked with slick public relations efforts by royalists -- civilian and
military -- including ubiquitous portraits, daily news updates, and a
continual flow of written, spoken and visual hagiography which
presented a lofty, storybook, pristine narration of his life and work.
While walking along Bangkok's main streets, people are almost
always within sight of a gigantic billboard or smaller sign or
wall-mounted calendar portraying Bhumibol in one of several archetypal
poses infused with understood altruism.
Supporters praising him in sponsored media and elsewhere often
signed their exultations: "Your Majesty's Obedient Servant."
Foreigners in Thailand were often warned not to do or say anything
which could be misinterpreted as disrespectful of the monarch.
Tourists for example were sometimes advised not to hide Thai
currency in their shoes or socks because Bhumibol's face is on all
notes and coins -- and feet are regarded by Buddhists as the lowest
place on the body.
Thailand is a constitutional monarchy and the newest interim
constitution, now in force, states:
"The King shall be enthroned in a position of revered worship and
shall not be violated."
That sentence has appeared in several of Thailand's previous 19
constitutions which were successively destroyed each time a military
coup seized power -- including immediately after the latest putsch in
Other laws have imprisoned Thais and foreigners who criticized or
insulted Bhumibol or his royal family.
Many Thais however would never think of besmirching their king.
Instead they frequently declared in public and private
conversations that they would sacrifice their lives to protect him and
Under Thailand's harsh lese majeste law which allows 15 years
imprisonment for offenders on each transgression -- sometimes
resulting in multiple, successive prison sentences -- only some
details about the monarchy and transition can be reported or spoken
about in public.
Those laws are expected to be severely enforced during Thailand's
one-year-long official mourning period, with officials and the public
lashing out at anyone perceived of unsupportive of the achievements,
motivations and role of the late king and the royal family, including
the next monarch.
The military government led by Prime Minister Prayuth meanwhile
vowed to sacrifice their own lives to protect the "highest
The military is widely expected to tighten its control over
Thailand during and after the royal succession to ensure calm,
maintain investors' confidence, and allow the monarchy and junta time
to establish themselves.