This year has been a rough year in terms of losing beloved icons.
Think of the celebrities who passed away this year. Now concentrate on the one you loved and will miss the most.
Remember how you felt in the moment you learned he/she died. Remember both the personal feeling of loss, as well as the intellectual grief that saw the vacuum they left.
Now imagine that you were raised from the time you could speak to say that person’s name with reverence. Imagine that from the time you first packed your vinyl Mario Bros or Disney Princess backpack and headed off to school, you were taught that this person was akin to a parent. In fact, this person was greater than a parent. A parent is a mere human, but this person is like a god—benevolent and dedicated to your well-being. You have never bought or sold anything with handling images of this person. Every week at school, you sing a song written by and dedicated to that person, and rise for that same song before every movie you watch in theatres. Imagine that this person is the very fabric of your society, the very definition of your culture, and the very center of your nation’s stability and order.
This is the connection most Thais feel towards the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej.
It took me some time to appreciate and sympathize with this depth of feeling. The disconnect I felt with Thai grief was due in part to the fact that I’ve never felt a great loss at the passing of any famous stranger. Moreover, I had allowed myself to read the unofficial history of his life—which includes the forbidden criticisms of his legacy. It’s hard to appreciate a man’s accomplishments when you learn of his secret frustrations.
I first learned of the king’s passing while on a short return visit to the U.S. I remember being unsurprised, as there were prior reports of failing health, but still gasping at the implications. In my mind, it felt like Yeats’s “Second Coming”: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.” The political implications of Thailand’s stabilizing father passing on were not lost on me.
Where I was taken aback was in Thailand’s extreme response. Thailand’s response to tragedy is always a bit less than measured. And from my understanding from abroad, it seemed Thailand was overreacting. Bars were closed, costing people like my girlfriend precious income. Celebration of any kind was forbidden; so public music was unofficially banned. The people, Thais and foreigners alike, were urged not to wear bright colors. Anyone criticizing the king was violently dragged to their knees before his portrait and coerced into apologies and respect.
I scoffed. I raged.
Then I flew back.
As I flew, I pondered the king’s impact on the lives of his subjects. I pondered their abject loyalty and devotion. Suddenly I started to understand.
To help me make that leap to empathize with Thai people who would insist that the world stop rotating for a year just so that they can process their grief, I thought of a world leader that I greatly revere: President Obama.
Before you scoff, let me justify my choice. Overall, I am proud of his accomplishments as president. He doesn’t represent the radical shift to the left that my fellow progressives had hoped for, but he possesses, at the very least, an intellectual poise and personal charisma that strong leaders are made of. In many ways, he’s analogous to the late king in that very fact—he has a cult of personality that numbs many valid criticisms. Intellectually, I’m unsatisfied with his presidency, but emotionally, I just fucking love the guy. Some would point out the blood on his hands. I’m quick to wave it away and ask what world leader doesn’t have blood on his hands. I’m quick to wave it away and ask what world leader doesn’t have blood on his hands. Had Obama died tragically (but not assassinated—that’s quite a different scenario), I’m sure the grief and loss I’d feel would be akin to what Thais feel now.
When I returned, there was a noticeably different atmosphere in Thailand. It was quiet. The nights were darker. A great majority of people carried on with their lives, but more calmly and wearing black. And it all seemed…appropriate. After all, their father, their demi-god, their second Buddha, their caretaker, their center, their leader, their light, their constant, and, most crucially, their hope: these had all left them in the passing of one figure.
Mourning the king isn’t just about mourning a celebrity. It isn’t about mourning a political figure, either. And it isn’t simply about mourning a beloved father. Thailand now mourns the loss of perhaps its greatest stabilizing force during the 20th century, the one constant through seven decades of military coupes and constant constitutional reconstruction. The king modernized his country and prioritized sustainable development before it was ever a buzzword. He believed that his reign represented the truest form of democracy, elevated above any parliament or senate, because he was the greatest power of Thailand with an ear bent toward the will of his subjects. His seemingly endless royal projects testify to his responsiveness to Thailand’s multifarious needs.
In effect, Thailand mourns the death of a benevolent god, the essence of their national identity.