Has Thailand changed markedly since 3.52pm last Thursday when His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej passed away?
Yes, and no. In a way, even though time seemed to have stopped at that devastating moment, it has gone by and life has continued. The passing of the monarch, the only King most people in the country know and learned to love as if their own father, was painful. However, there has been no major commotion or turmoil.
At a deeper level, though, most, if not all, Thais know nothing will be the same.
Atiya Achakulwisut is Contributing Editor, Bangkok Post.
Amid endless rows of black-clad people and the eerie quietness of the night as Thais turn away from entertainment to mourn their beloved King, people know that the end of King Rama IX’s reign marks the end of an era, to social norms, ways of thinking and cultural values, that were anchored around the presence of King Bhumibol and what he represented.
As people flooded social media with story after story about the King’s life and work and video clips of his past interviews and speeches, it seemed as if they were trying to cling to the last vignettes of the late King’s reign and were not ready to face up to what appears to be a yet-to-be defined new social order.
It is understandable that most people are clueless about the succession process; this is only the third time that a transition has occurred since the country adopted a constitutional monarchy 84 years ago.
Still, questions and clarifications that have come out almost daily about proper protocol and conduct related to royal matters underlie certain dilemmas that the monarchy will have to face amid society’s diverse and ever-changing expectations.
For example, how should the public refer to the late King? After initial confusion, the Prime Minister’s Office issued a guideline saying the late King may be referred to by his royal name instead of as “the King in the Royal Urn”, which many people could not bear.
Many, however, wrote on social media that to them, King Bhumibol will always be their nai luang, a far more casual way to refer to the King than his lengthy official name and title but one that most people in the country are familiar with.
For Thais, the term nai luang also suggests a closer relationship between the throne and ordinary people, a connection that King Bhumibol fostered through his seven decades of hard work and thousands of visits to poor and underprivileged people, even in some of the most remote corners of the country.
The simple question of how to refer to the late King reflects a larger quandary of formality versus accessibility, convention versus practicality, and what shall be the place of the age-old institution steeped in obscure traditions in a more modern Thailand rocked by political conflicts and social inequalities.
The same is true with other brouhahas that have surfaced following the King’s death. While the government did not force members of the public to wear black to mourn the late King, to wear other colours during this period has become a sensitive issue. Those who go around in other colours, whether by necessity or by choice, seem to run a risk of being judged by others for lacking loyalty.
The government deserves credit for moving quickly to persuade the public not to judge other people’s feelings towards the institution because of the colour of their clothing. But again, the resentment foresees possibly clashing expectations that modern, culturally and intellectually diverse Thais have, not just about the monarchy but how they want society in general to be run.
It’s the same old question about traditional values focusing on conformity versus more modern philosophies based on individual rights and freedom.
Thanks to the late King’s long reign and his charisma, dedication and intellectual capacity, he was viewed as a bridge that spanned old-time Thailand with its more modern era. His conscientious voice and righteous philosophies which he regularly imparted through speeches and his work, were the ultimate common ground for the country that has been increasingly torn apart by social and political disparities.
Thailand and its people have apparently moved on from the calamitous moment on Thursday last week. But at an intellectual or emotional level, many of us seem to be stuck in the same old quandaries that brought the country to a standstill in the past.
As some people have remarked, Thais have moved on from red-shirt, yellow-shirt infighting to bickering about whether one is wearing a black enough shirt.
The country still has a long way to go.