We knew it would happen but when it did the blow was grave. We thought we could prepare for the eventuality, for the implacable force of mortality to exert its power, and yet all our mental preparation was swept aside, like a wave of fate’s hand, when the announcement of His Majesty King Bhumibol’s death was televised on Thursday evening.
This is a time of grief, a time of panegyrics and remembrance. For a year, black will be our colour, inside and out, visible and metaphorical, as the funereal halo wraps us like a collective shroud. People sob on the bus, weep on the train, cry in the office. The passing of the beloved King, despite his long illnesses and absence from public appearance, struck like the hammer of destiny, and regardless of how you perceive yourself ideologically, the emotional shock of what transpired in the past two days is almost indisputable.
What we’re experiencing is a national tragedy that only happened once in lifetime — once in history. But its force is staggering because it also feels personal, for each of us feels something in our heart — the tremor, the lump, the vertigo, the void.
At the same time, what happened is a natural tragedy that visited a man who was, and is, revered by millions to an extent usually reserved for a god. Virtually all of the 65 million Thai people had never lived a single day without the late King, not until yesterday, and how the post-Rama IX life will pan out for us is something that will test our courage, patience and imagination.
His Majesty King Bhumibol’s life fills pages and pages of Thai history, which is also world history in many instances. It began from the time he ascended the throne in the dizzying post-war year, to the escalation of the Cold War when Thailand was on a dangerous seesaw, to the time of field marshals and their strong-armed politicking, to the rise of democracy and protests, and to the present decade of bitter confusion and political schism. Much of it have been written, and will continue to be written, and yet what’s also important is that history moves on. It always does, because life is as natural as death and when the sobbing subsides, the ink will also have to be spent on the new chapter through which the country will confront.
Before His Majesty the King’s passing, the mood that ruled society was fear. Fear of the inevitable, fear of the unknown. Fear of change and shift, real and imagined, and the fear spawned by cynicism and political rabble-rousing. And fear, as they say, eats away at the soul.
Now that the inevitable has arrived, now that the fountain of sorrow is flowing, maybe we should be able to relieve ourselves from the fear that has hindered our path to progress and crippled our minds.
Over the years these fears have been formulated in part through the culture of secrecy and misinformation, and such penchant for intrigue is debilitating to a society in need of courage, conscience and compassion — the qualities set by the example of the late His Majesty himself.
Sometimes the fear degenerates and transforms us, and so, for example, we bark at those who out of ignorance or necessity forget to wear black, or those who laugh in public places, and such moments remind us that while we grieve we can also be merciful, while sadness overwhelms us we can also be generous, and while we wade through difficult phases in life we can find a glimpse of kindness. Again as the late King showed on many occasions during his 70-year reign.
The nation will continue to mourn and weep. The funeral procession yesterday on the streets of Bangkok was something we’re likely to see only once in this lifetime, a solemn convergence of centuries-old history, tradition, faith, palace protocol, and an emotional outpouring of the unprecedented scale.
You felt the beat that your heart skipped watching it on TV. His Majesty King Bhumibol was a unifying figure when he was with us, and now his departure is having the same effect in a place so torn by years of fear and anger. But it is not enough: as we grieve — and we should grieve in our own way — we should also be ready to look further, to find a way if not to unite then at least to accommodate the complexity of society and the complications of the world so different from the 1940s, or even the 1990s. There is nothing more honourable in a way to remember our King.
Kong Rithdee is Life Editor, Bangkok Post.