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One year after King's death, Thais prepare for final goodbye

© AFP / by Sally MAIRS | Thai civil servants pray during a ceremony led by monks in front of Bangkok's City Hall marking one year since the death of King Bhumibol Adulyadej

BANGKOK (AFP) - 

Monks led sombre ceremonies across Thailand Friday to mark one year since the death of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, as the grieving nation prepares to bid a final farewell to the beloved monarch in a spectacular cremation ceremony this month.

Revered as a demi-god and described as a "father" to all Thais, Bhumibol commanded deep devotion during his historic 70-year reign.

The past year has drawn out widespread scenes of collective mourning across the kingdom, with many Thais expunging colour from their wardrobes and donning only black and white for most of the year.

The solemn mood has deepened this month as the kingdom grapples with having to say a final goodbye to the monarch during his October 26 cremation, part of an elaborate five-day funeral that will send Bhumibol's spirit to the afterlife.

On Friday thousands of black-clad Thais streamed into temples, state agencies and the courtyard of the Bangkok hospital where Bhumibol spent his final years to give alms to Buddhist monks as part of a merit-making ritual for the monarch.

"I don't want the cremation ceremony to take place, I just can't cope with it," 57-year-old Kanokporn Chavasith, one of hundreds of mourners gathering outside the Grand Palace in Bangkok, said through tears.

Another bleary-eyed mourner, 61-year-old Chalita U-sap, added: "I want him to stay with us forever."

Most offices closed for the public holiday, which saw the nation hold a moment of silence at 3:52pm, the exact time the monarch died at age 88 following years of poor health.

In the evening Thailand's new king, 65-year-old Maha Vajiralongkorn, lit candles as senior monks chanted in a ritual-heavy ceremony before junta leaders and other elites seated in the glittering palace hall.

- Marigolds and muted TV -

Public displays of mourning have been encouraged and orchestrated by the ultra-royalist junta that seized power in 2014 as Bhumibol's health was declining.

As the massive funeral draws nearer, TV channels have been ordered to reduce their colour saturation, refrain from overly-joyous content and roll out documentaries highlighting the the king's good works.

Businesses have erected portraits of the bespectacled monarch, while parks and pavements have been lined with marigolds -- a flower associated with Bhumibol.

A severe royal defamation law, which has been vigorously enforced by the junta and landed critics in jail for decades, makes it difficult to measure the role that social pressure plays in teasing out displays of devotion.

Frank discussion of the monarchy and its role in Thai politics is impossible under the law, which has spawned a culture of self-censorship across the arts, media and academia.

Although the constitutional monarch has limited formal powers, Thailand's crown became enormously wealthy and influential under Bhumibol's reign.

The monarch, seen as a rare anchor of stability across decades of political upheaval, used his position to shape history behind the scenes with the loyalty of much of the business and military elite.

He also charmed ordinary Thais with a reputation as a hard-working king dedicated to projects for the poor -- a image nurtured by an extensive palace propaganda machine.

Bhumibol's successor has yet to attain his father's level of popularity and spends much of his time abroad.

His relationship with the military and other traditional powerbrokers is difficult to parse due to the opacity of royal affairs and the lese majeste law.

But the 65-year-old has already made moves to consolidate control over the palace bureaucracy and reduce government oversight during his first year in power.

Vajiralongkorn is expected to hold his coronation after his father's funeral, though no date has been set.

In a letter to the public this week, he expressed gratitude to the some 12 million Thais who visited the throne hall where Bhumibol's body has been lying in state.

At least a quarter million Thais are expected attend the cremation ceremony, which will centre around a towering funeral pyre that has been erected outside Bangkok's Grand Palace.

The complex, which is adorned with hundreds of mythical deities, represents Mount Meru -- the allegorical centre of the universe in Buddhist, Hindu and Jain cosmology where Thais believe Bhumibol's spirit will return.

by Sally MAIRS

© 2017 AFP