He was the world’s richest monarch – wealthier than Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II - and the longest-serving, spending 70 years on the throne. Thailand’s King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who died four months ago aged 88, was respected and worshipped by his people. His death plunged Thailand into uncertainty and an unprecedented period of mourning. Our Southeast Asia correspondent Clovis Casali reports on this historic event.
Although King Bhumibol Adulyadej had been ill for several years, his passing on October 13, 2016 still shocked the nation. In the hours following the announcement, millions of Thais clad themselves in black while a sense of sadness could be felt in the streets. In Thailand, the monarch is a pillar of society and most of Thailand’s 67 million people had never known any other king than Bhumibol, who spent seven decades on the throne. A semi-divine figure, Bhumibol Adulyadej was immensely popular due to his efforts to unite the country, while making sure not to forget the poorest.
While military coups regularly rocked Thailand during his reign (most recently in 2006 and 2014), King Bhumibol symbolised stability. But no citizen dared or could criticise him, due to a law on lèse majesté, or the crime of "violating majesty", the infamous Article 112 of the Thai penal code. Recently denounced by the UN as a tool for political repression, this law is among the strictest in the world. Anyone defaming the image of the monarchy can be sentenced from three to 15 years behind bars. But Buddhist intellectual Sulak Sivaraksa, who met Bhumibol Adulyadej on several occasions, insists the late monarch took a dim view of the law.
Long before his death, Bhumibol Adulyadej had chosen his son Maha Vajiralongkorn to succeed him. The heir, who already represented him at official ceremonies, first asked for some time to be able to mourn his loss with the rest of the nation. It was only on December 1, 2016, some fifty days after his father’s death, that he was proclaimed king with the title of Rama X - his father having been crowned in 1950 with the dynastic name of Rama IX.
As a long chapter of Thai history comes to a close, expectations are high for the new king, a 64-year-old former army officer educated in the United Kingdom.