Millions of Thais Prepare for King Bhumibol’s Cremation

Pimuk Rakkanam, Nontarat Phaicharoen and Wilawan Watcharasakwet
2017.10.24
Bangkok
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171024-TH-king-620 Members of the Royal Guard stand at attention as the Royal Urn arrives at the cremation grounds during a full rehearsal for the cremation of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, Oct. 21, 2017.
Pimuk Rakkanam/BenarNews

Updated at 10:47 a.m. ET on 2017-10-25

Thailand on Wednesday begins five days of rituals bidding a final farewell to the kingdom’s longest reigning monarch, topped off by the grandest cremation ceremony the country has ever witnessed.

Tens of thousands of Thais will gather along the processional route in Bangkok on Thursday while millions more will watch broadcasts of the cremation ceremony for King Bhumibol Adulyadej (Rama IX), who led the nation for seven decades until his death on Oct. 13, 2016.

The ceremonies will end a year of national mourning for King Bhumibol, during which Thais dressed in black and white out of respect for him.

His son, King Maha Vajiralongkorn, assumed the throne on Dec. 1 and will preside over the cremation ceremony in front of royals and high-level delegates from 42 countries, at the Song Tham Pavilion next to the crematorium, palace officials said.

King Maha Vajiralongkorn’s sister, Princess Sirindhorn, will join him to lead the mile-long procession of honor from the Grand Palace to the cremation grounds beginning at 7 a.m. Thursday. Other royals, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha and government officials, senior monks, soldiers, members of the Royal Guard, musicians and students will join the procession, according to officials.

The hearse that will carry King Bhumibol’s Royal Urn, Phra Maha Phichai Ratcharot or “Great Victory Royal Chariot,” was used in 1795 for the funeral of the father of King Rama I, and later to transport royals of the Chakri Dynasty. As many as 216 men will pull the 13-ton hearse of carved, lacquered and gilded wood that was rebuilt for the ceremony.

Sukanya Fezler, a restaurant owner in Switzerland who is returning to Thailand to attend the cremation ceremony, said she came back twice already this year to pay her respects to the late king, to whom she referred as “father.”

“When I was tired from work in Switzerland, I could not talk to anybody … but when I just looked at our father’s image, I know how tired he had been, but he used his calmness to solve the problems,” Sukanya told BenarNews.

“We have great teachings from our father, leading the way and giving energy to continue,” she said.

Following the processional, King Maha Vajiralongkorn will oversee a merit-making ceremony – a Buddhist ritual – attended by his mother, Queen Sirikit. About 3,000 people, including royal guests, government officials and specially selected commoners will present sandal wood for a symbolic bonfire planned for 5 p.m. Thursday.

Key guests who will be seated at a special pavilion for the ceremony include Prince Andrew of Great Britain who will represent his mother, Queen Elizabeth. Secretary of Defense James Mattis is expected to represent the United States.

The actual cremation is to begin at 10 p.m. Thursday after the guests leave, and is expected to take about five hours. About 300 rounds of heavy artillery, one for each minute of the cremation, will be fired off during the televised event.

King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s body will be cremated in the royal pyre (top center), Oct. 21, 2017. [Pimuk Rakkanam/BenarNews]
King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s body will be cremated in the royal pyre (top center), Oct. 21, 2017. [Pimuk Rakkanam/BenarNews]


Crowds gather

By the evening of Sunday, Oct. 22, thousands of Thais already began occupying space around the processional route. Government officials were expecting 200,000 people to gather by Thursday, while 70 million are expected to watch television broadcasts of the ceremony. Only about 40,000 people will be able to see the processional, officials said.

Malee Sukpitak, a Muslim woman from Satun province, traveled by train from the south and planned to spend nights on the sidewalk as she waited for the cremation ceremony, even though the government had arranged for people to spend the night in schools and temples.

“We were born in the reign of King Rama IX and would like to send his majesty off to heaven according to Islam, which is the same with Buddhism,” she told BenarNews. “He had done a great deal for the nation.  

“Staying on the road, we don’t think it is hard because we are willing to do it. At least we can tell our children about this, because they will not see this anything like this again,” Malee said. “I have been praying for him too.”

Other Thais will attend ceremonies at 84 crematorium replicas and 878 pyre sites across the nation.

Abdulloh Mali, a resident of southern Songkhla province, has been drawing King Bhumibol to cope with his sadness.

“Even though I know he is not going far, the king is in my heart every day.  I remember his face precisely. The closer we approach Oct. 26, the more I feel depressed,” Abdulloh told BenarNews.

Mourning period nears end

The five-day schedule includes a blessing and offering of alms on Wednesday and the cremation on Thursday. Ashes will be collected from the pyre and returned to the Dusit Maha Prasart Throne Hall in the Grand Palace on Friday where they will be blessed on Saturday, and then moved to their permanent home at the Chakri Maha Prasart Throne Hall in the Grand Palace on Sunday.

An official period of mourning ends Monday.

Prayuth’s military-led government constructed the cremation grounds for King Bhumibol on the Sanam Luang Field or the Royal Ground next to the Grand Palace. It has been the site for royal cremations since Bangkok became the capital of what was Siam in 1782.

King Bhumibol and all Thai kings are believed to be divine Gods and were reincarnated from the universe where the Sumeru Mountain is at its center, according to ancient Thai beliefs influenced by Hinduism.

The crematorium, called Phra Sumeru after the mountain, is decorated with mythical figures of Deva and half-Deva along with animals of the heavenly Himmapan Forest. As a special recognition of King Bhumibol’s 70-year reign, the crematorium roof is 70 meters (230 feet) high.

King Bhumibol Adulyadej, whose name means “The Strength of the Land, Incomparable Power,” was born in Cambridge, Mass., on Dec. 5, 1927, the youngest of three children of Prince Mahidol of Songkhla and a commoner, Sangwan Talapat.

King Bhumipol was the grandson of King Chulalongkorn (Rama V), considered one of Thailand’s greatest kings for reforms he instituted, including the abolition of slavery. Rama V made it his mission to modernize Thailand (Siam) and align it with Western standards.

Man arrested

Meanwhile on Tuesday, the Thai military detained an anti-monarchist for posting a message on social media saying that he planned to wear red on Thursday.

Political activist Ekachai Hongkangwan was arrested by 11 members of the military at his Bangkok home over an Oct. 20 Facebook post, “this 26th I will put on a red shirt and will do something nobody could expect,” a human rights lawyer told BenarNews.

A pro-democracy group identifies itself by wearing red shirts while groups loyal to the monarchy wear yellow shirts.

“Military officials said they let him choose between going to Kanchanaburi province or go to a military camp. Ekachai chose to go to Kanchanaburi during the cremation ceremony,” said the lawyer who asked to remain anonymous. “He is expected to return on the morning of Oct. 27.”

Issues around the monarchy are highly sensitive in Thailand. Since the junta seized power three years ago, Thai authorities have prosecuted dozens of people suspected of violating the nation’s strict royal defamation law, known as Lese-Majeste.

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