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Grieving Thailand salutes late King Bhumibol Adulyadej

Crowds line the streets in Bangkok as the body of late Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej is taken to his palace on October 14, 2016 © AFP / Manan Vatsyayana

Bangkok, Thailand, Oct 14 – Massive crowds of weeping Thais and saluting soldiers lined the streets Friday as late King Bhumibol Adulyadej was borne through Bangkok, a day after his death left an apprehensive country facing an uncertain future.

Bhumibol, the world’s longest-reigning monarch, passed away at 88 on Thursday after years of ill health, ending seven decades as a stabilising figure in a nation of deep political divisions.

The phenomenal reverence towards him in Thailand was on clear display as mourners sat for hours in Bangkok’s urban heat awaiting the passage of his motorcade, in scenes reminiscent of religious devotees.

Pensive-looking men and women dressed in black were jammed cheek by jowl along roadsides in the capital on the short route from the hospital where Bhumibol died to his royal palace.

Thailand’s King Bhumibol Adulyadej, pictured in May 2010 © AFP/File / Pornchai Kittiwongsakul

Some fainted and were carried away on stretchers, while others shouted “King of the people!” as the convoy of several vans bearing his body and the royal family slowly wheeled through hushed streets.

The king ruled 70 years and was the only monarch most Thais knew.

“We no longer have him,” wept Phongsri Chompoonuch, 77, as she clutched the late monarch’s portrait.

“I don’t know whether I can accept that. I fear, because I don’t know what will come next.”

– Mourning begins –

At the palace, the crown prince was to preside over the bathing of the king’s body, a traditional Buddhist funeral rite and the start of official mourning that will include at least 100 days of chanting by monks and months more of palace rituals.

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Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, 64, is the king’s named successor but has made a surprise request to delay formally assuming the throne, according to Thailand’s junta leader, who appealed for citizens to “not cause chaos”.

Thailand’s King Bhumibol Adulyadej Bhumibol was seen as a pillar of stability during his politically turbulent reign © AFP / Roberto Schmidt

Late Friday a senior junta official confirmed that under Thailand’s constitution Prem Tinsulanonda, the head of Bhumibol’s Privy Council, will act as regent until Vajiralongkorn officially takes the throne.

“It’s temporary to solve the immediate problem as the throne is vacant,” deputy prime minister Wissanu Krea-ngam told reporters.

Prem is a retired general, a former prime minister and a staunch Bhumibol ally who remains sprightly and highly influential even at the age of 96.

Bhumibol was seen as a pillar of stability during his politically turbulent reign, and uncertainty for the future rests largely on doubts over whether his son can exert the same calming moral authority.

A woman mourns the death of Thailand’s King Bhumibol Adulyadej at Bangkok’s Siriraj Hospital © AFP / Manan Vatsyayana

The crown prince spends much of his time overseas and does not command the reverence at home that his father did.

There was no indication of a threat to the crown prince’s eventual succession, however, and analysts said the pause could merely be out of respect for the deeply revered king.

Strict lese majeste laws muffle detailed discussion of the sensitive succession issue.

– ‘Element of ambiguity’ –

“We maybe shouldn’t read too much into (the delay),” said David Streckfuss, an expert on the Thai monarchy.

“But we have already departed from what should have been a normal succession process. An element of ambiguity has been injected into the situation.”

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The current junta overthrew the democratically elected government of Yingluck Shinawatra in 2014, saying it wanted to end a decade of political strife.

Thai Royal Guards march in honour of late King Bhumibol Adulyadej at the Grand Palace in Bangkok on October 14, 2016 © AFP / Lillian Suwanrumpha

Yingluck’s brother, exiled tycoon Thaksin Shinawatra, had previously been ousted in a 2006 coup.

Since then, tensions have simmered between his throngs of supporters and a competing faction seen as aligned to the crown and military.

Some analysts believe the 2014 takeover was prompted in part by concerns over an unstable succession in which Thaksin’s faction could seek to exert influence.

Bhumibol’s reign saw decades of rapid economic development but also frequent military coups that set back democracy.

Although the king approved most of the army’s many successful coups, he also sometimes intervened to quell political violence, and his loss worries many Thais.

“Now I am afraid of what may happen, about the administration of the country, the type of regime in the long term,” said Arnon Sangwiman, a 54-year-old electricity company employee.

Government offices and state-run enterprises were closed out of respect Friday, but commercial activity otherwise carried on.

Stocks, pressured all week as the king’s health worsened, rebounded Friday, with the benchmark index closing 4.59 percent higher.

Authorities continued to interrupt all television programming in the country — including international networks such as the BBC and CNN — using their signals to broadcast non-stop hagiographic fare on the king’s life.

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But colour was restored, a day after all TV images were transmitted in black and white out of mourning.

Praise for Bhumibol’s role as a ruler devoted to his subjects has poured in from across the globe including from US President Barack Obama and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.


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