with long queues for a replica Royal Cremation, 26 Oct 2017
Bangkok Love Letter
FRIDAY the 13TH
Friday 13 October – Friday 4 November, 2017, Bangkok
Dear Foreign Friend,
My usual omen-laden picks of recent news, namely the old abbot feared for occult powers killed with a hammer wrapped in bloody sanitary napkins; 2 more cold skeletons unearthed by following dream directions from the murder victims; even Ajarn Sulak Sivaraksa’s alleged lese majeste against a 16th century king—these will have to wait as we set it all aside to share in the terrible moment when we must burn King Bhumibol’s earthly remains, to send him off to another dimension, far from our vale of tears.
Monsoon clouds above Rama VIII bridge, Oct 6, 2017
Friday 13 October, 2017, Bangkok
No sun again. Dark all day. Rumbling thunder all afternoon; this morning it rained. Instead of retreating, the monsoon seems increased in intensity. In the day-long twilight a vampire could walk around even at noon without getting a tan.
One year after the King died, I didn’t go out to see if people were really standing in silence for 89 seconds (HM’s age + 1) at 3:52 pm (time of death). Banks & the Public Health Station up the road are closed; I didn’t feel like witnessing the ceremony at the shopping mall among temporary gardens of real & artificial marigolds.
October for us is a month pregnant with history of sweeping change. King Rama V died on October 23 after presiding over a long ‘golden’ reign; first true people’s uprising on October 14 followed 3 years later by the October 6 massacre; crushing of People’s Alliance for Democracy on October 7, and now we have October 13. Even the last uprising, Shutdown Bangkok, began at Halloween on October 30-31 beside the train tracks at Samsen station. The light beams from passing trains provided the requisite horror movie lighting as they passed over the massed protesters scattering to make way for the train, itself full of people waving clappers & flags whose screams died out as the train sped them away. Meanwhile movie channels run their annual classic horror fests to mark the Witching Month.
Marigold garden materializing in front of a shopping centre
to honour King Rama IX
This October is of course especially solemn, with the one year anniversary of the death of King Rama IX on October 13th, a Friday no less. Since October 1st, TV colour intensity on some channels is back to what it was in the month after he died, pushed down to about 40%, leaving the image sepia, like something that happened once upon a time to people who lived long ago.
Everyone I know has a decision to make re the Royal Cremation, a holiday, on October 26: to go into the fray or stay home & watch it all on TV in the comfort of our own home, safe & dry but with no direct contact with the sensations of a historic moment. But people struck by an insane grief won’t care about endless queuing & getting drenched; some might even welcome it as miraculous blessing of holy water from the Beloved One who now continues to safeguard the cohesion & stability of our country from above; some may even be taking pride & joy in the physical suffering they must endure to be close to his remains, in an attempt to assuage the intensity of their bewilderment and pain.
It is announced that on the day of the Royal Cremation of King Bhumibol, Rama IX of the Chakri dynasty, all banks & shopping malls will be closed, to enable staff to attend the ritual as they wish. They can’t go to the movies, however, as cinemas will also be closed; no escapist entertainment. From October 13 to 29th all flags will fly half-mast including at Thai embassies worldwide, during which time all civil servants are asked to wear black. Why they feel the need to say this last escapes me; most people have remained in mourning clothes anyway since the day he died last October 13.
Official replicas of the Royal Crematorium have been built in all 76 provinces, usually in front of the town hall, which will receive the mourners’ crematory flowers [dok mai jan—“sandalwood flower”], to be burned at the same time as the real cremation, by a flame taken from the same sacred fire, in a symbolic attempt to unite the nation. In Bangkok, in addition to the actual purpose-built Royal Crematorium, there are 3 replicas (one almost next to the original, another nearby in front of City Hall; one at a shopping centre in the Eastern suburb of Bangna) as well as other designated sites such as Wat That Thong & other temples known for funereal services.
(cinema audiences must stand up for the royal anthem before the film begins)
With vast emotional crowds and many crowned heads of the world attending, the Royal Funeral is also a security nightmare. New rules & regulations have been announced: drones are not allowed within a 19 km radius from the Royal Ground; no selfie stick & no selfie, no zoom or telephoto lens (or anything else that might be mistaken for a gun or rocket launcher, I suppose); those wishing to join the crowds around the Grand Palace must first be vetted at several ‘Sorting & Filtering’ [“jood kudgrong”] checkpoints set up in a wide net. Bring your National Identity Card & carry it always; wear proper respectful dress: no shorts allowed & for women skirt below the knees only, no pants; and proper, covered shoes. Since many people can’t afford such shoes, this last injunction is likely to be an effective deterrent which could help thin the crowds. Hats & umbrellas must be black or other “polite colours”; the telephone covers of those seated in the front must be black only “so the picture would look good” (this was not announced on TV but on site by volunteers—on the 25th a photographer I know actually saw people being forced to buy new phone covers from vendors on the spot); as the royal family approaches, hats & sunglasses must be removed & umbrellas closed; you must then prostrate until they have passed.
In addition, news outlets are not allowed to broadcast the procession live, whether in rehearsal or on the actual day; it must all come from the TV pool. They’re also not allowed to use images from the public’s Facebook live. The Nation TV and one other channel have been punished for disregarding this rule & were banned from presenting clips of the last rehearsal.
One odd thing I’ve just noticed from news clips of the final rehearsal is the American-sounding martial music, mingling with & almost drowning the traditional Brahmin conch & Mon pi-part sounds. It’s very odd. I don’t remember such a discordant combination during Queen Rambhai’s funeral (which I was privileged to attend as a junior relative). I remember people just walking solemnly, not marching. Perhaps it’s an attempt to make it less solemn by speeding things up. I imagine that for those in the procession, it must be difficult to reconcile the thumping rhythm of military marching to the emotional requirements of a funeral.
at final rehearsal for her royal father’s funeral procession
A string of funerals, of lesser beloved mortals, deepened my sombre mood & provided the usual discreet gossip catch-up opportunity. People seem to be either agreeing with or confirming our worst fears. In a breathless hush we huddle & wait for Halloween, “after the ceremony”.
As you can imagine, what with the very recent Shakespeare court loss to the censors which we are appealing [Bangkok Love Letter #12], I think I’ve finally reached my limit. The royalist fervour being displayed by some unlikely quarters, in tandem with the ‘new’ political correctness verbiage of the old colonial divide & conquer chestnut, finally convince me that no divisions exist between human beings other than in their sincerity or lack thereof. Instead of dividing the world into ‘evil elite’ & ‘peasants’; ‘military fascists’ & ‘democrats’; ‘royalists’ & ‘anti-royalists’, ‘blacks’ & ‘whites’, in survival terms it makes much more sense to discern whether someone is ‘opportunistic’ or ‘sincere’. Depending on your nature, on this basis you’d know if someone could be trusted as an ally. A sincere person would obviously be a bad partner in crime. Sightings proliferate of groups of unlikely people meeting in strange configurations.
A policeman on duty at the Royal Ground proudly shows off his knee,
blistered from hours of prostrating on a hot pavement
Yingluck’s would-be successor, Khunying Sudarat Keyurapan of the For Thai Party tasted the sting of social media scorn when she drove around in a truck with her name in big bold letters on the windscreen, exhorting all & sundry to plant marigolds to honour King Rama IX. She refuted accusations of electioneering by pleading tearfully that she wished only to show her love for the King. As inadequate newcomer Yingluck effortlessly landed the plum role of first Thai woman prime minister, the veteran politician spent her wilderness years on pilgrimages, especially to the Buddha’s birth place, Lumbhini in Nepal. As the bloodshed of Shutdown Bangkok spattered over everyone, her Buddhist devotional dress remains white & pristine, ready for her reentrance on the national stage, just as some poll finds her the most appealing choice for voters, nationwide.
Meanwhile here’s redshirt leader of self-proclaimed peasants & professional hater of the evil elite Thida Thavornseth’s justifying, on her Facebook to the redshirt faithful, Yingluck’s flight from justice 2 days before her rice scheme sentencing (despite her defiant promise not to flee):
“Ms Yingluck is in the social elite class..It was a sacrifice for her to participate in politics.. Ms Yingluck cannot be held to have betrayed & forsaken the people. Professor Thida [sic, meaning herself] understands & sympathises & believes that we should even support her [action].” Is the former Comrade Poon of the Communist Party of Thailand saying in effect that lesser mortals (like Yingluck’s Commerce Minister Boonsong) can go to jail because, not having been brought up in the lap of luxury, they can take it?
“Thaksin Thinks, Puea Thai [“For Thai”] Acts”, Thaksin’s party’s electioneering motto for Yingluck’s election, has turned into the catchphrase: “Thaksin Thinks; Yingluck Acts; Boonsong goes to Jail” [“Thaksin Kid, Puea Thai Tum; Boonsong Tid Kook”]. For Boonsong you can substitute any other Thaksin disciple including real rather than fake ‘peasant’ redshirts jailed for burning provincial town halls on their leaders’ televised exhortations to “Burn it all, brothers & sisters, burn it all! I’ll take the responsibility & the blame!”
The police are also steadfast. They obviously believe their Big Brother Thaksin, and their police state, will return in one form or another after the elections. Witness the shameful way the local police chief treated the DNA-collecting forensics police in front of Yingluck’s house, frisking them & searching their cases before allowing them to enter as part of the farcical investigation into Yingluck’s cop-assisted flight, as the National Police Deputy Commander presided over the shame.
before being allowed inside Yingluck’s house (Nation TV)
Saturday 14 October
Biggest flood in over 30 years came into the house & ruined some books. Everyone’s exhausted after being up since 3 AM rescuing stuff & unblocking the drain in the ‘Thousand Year Rain’. All sensitive stuff removed to high ground. A “Niagara of flood water” roared into the 2 storey underground carpark of the almost completed condo up the soi, drowning all the cars. That was the source of the blood-curdling scream heard in the predawn pitch darkness after the power black-out. Nobody feels sorry for them; they’ve destroyed the road & choked up the drains with cement dust. With impending deluge from the North & high water approaching from the sea, we wonder anxiously if the King’s cremation will be flooded with brackish river water as well as tears.
drowning in worst floods in inner Bangkok in over 30 years, 14 Oct 2017
Friday 20 October, New Moon
More rules & guidelines for those attending the cremation at the Royal Ground are announced: we should wear “polite colours”, carry only “black or grey umbrellas”, and “absolutely no selfie sticks”. We should not make a spectacle of ourselves but “express grief in an orderly & polite, peaceful & reserved manner” [“sadaeng argarn siajai duay kwarm suparp riab-roy, sa-ngob, samruam”]. Also, do not to forget yourself and proclaim ‘Long Live the King!’ as his remains or the golden urn that represented his remains*, pass by in the procession, since of course the King you’d be calling out to, for whom you’re weeping, is dead. [*Queen Rambhai’s was the last royal body to actually reside, ancient Thai style, within the urn pre-cremation like an embryo ready for rebirth as another avatar in a new womb.]
As the rules multiply, reports abound of verbal fights breaking out between volunteers helping out with the Royal Cremation & would-be attendees who were not deemed eligible to pass the “filtering & sorting points”. HM the new King Rama X even issued a request for volunteers to speak to the people in a polite tone.
“HM is concerned that the people feel oppressed”
People are moved by people who try. That’s why they wept like that for Princess Diana & why they’re weeping for King Bhumibol, whose name means ‘The People’s Pride’. Even my environmental activist mother who had to battle a Mhong hilltribe-related Royal Project to save the headwaters forests of the Mae Ping river; who believed that the King did not always receive the best advice, admitted that His Majesty sincerely deeply cared and always had the best intentions. When Princess Diana died I remember hearing the same reaction from the most unlikely people: “I’m surprised by how much it bothers me.”
Thursday 25 October
My conscience says it’s fraud to continue writing about this without seeing it for myself. I’ve avoided going to the old town since the death of King Bhumibol; this is my last chance to experience this slice of history. I plan only to walk around on the periphery, not expecting to get through the Sorting & Filtering in my flipflops, since I’m not going to wade through flood water in anything else.
But there is a checkpoint with metal detector right off the boat at Pan Fa pier. To my surprise, they searched my backpack & let me in. I see tourists in shorts & singlet wandering around, dazed. Nobody bothers them. The police & volunteers by the pier are relaxed & friendly, nothing like the stories we’ve been hearing, but of course this is only the “outer ring”. The next, real ‘Sorting & Filtering Point’ is by the Mother Earth shrine in front of the Royal Hotel.
I never get there. In early afternoon up to one block before the Royal Hotel the crowds were still thin enough to flow through, but after that they called people by groups of 3-5 to move forward into the official queue for the S & F gateway to the pavements around the Royal Ground.
As I sit on the bridge a man walks up & down with a megaphone informing the crowd that King Rama X is about to pass by on his way to a religious rite in the Grand Palace. All must take off hats & sunglasses & sit down, though those who remain standing should keep their hats on. When he passes in the yellow car, we are to raise our hands in a wai. No photography with zoom lens or a large camera.
When I hear this last I begin filming video with my phone, but a cop tells me to stop. Yes they did say “large cameras not allowed”, but small cameras or phones are not allowed either. Meanwhile the megaphone guy continues in a chatty tone as he walks on, booming voice growing faint as he passes over the bridge: “How would it look when everyone else is saluting the King & you’re taking a photo? Also, as this is a mournful time, please don’t cry out ‘Long Live the King’…”
Only when I get home do I realise the absence of the military, apart from one camouflaged bunker in the back lane running parallel to Rajadamnern and, at my favourite ‘secret’ tea stall, a group of very intelligent-looking men, dressed as volunteers, who clustered around a chessboard watching a game between one of their own & a tiny old man in a shabby suit at least 3 sizes too big –
most likely borrowed, to meet the dress code. I desperately wanted to take a picture but my phone jammed for some reason.
Our plans are finally settled. All the people who’d planned to go out there to photograph history have chickened out & will come over to watch the procession on TV over a lazy lunch.
near Democracy Monument, 25 Oct 2017
Friday 27 October
On TV (TNN24) a woman who’s spent 3 days & nights to ensure her place there says, “I’ll stay to the end. I intend to send him all the way to heaven with the power of my heart [rang jai]” Another woman says: “I wanted to be as close to him as possible; I didn’t want to watch TV at home”. They obviously believe with all their heart that their love can make a difference.
King Bhumibol’s gift was his inclusive sympathetic good will, the ability to identify with his people through thick and thin. We felt that he suffered with us & we suffered with him, a bond that can still compell people to feel the need & personal responsibility to be there with him every step of the way. We are like weeping children chasing a car carrying away our sense of safety & peace of mind, “the cool shade of his being over our heads” [yen sira proh pra baribarn], in the words of the royal anthem.
relayed from the Grand Palace, afternoon 25 Oct 2017
After my 2nd trip to gauge the post-Royal Cremation energy (via the same canal route to the same spot then across to the road between Thammasart university & the Fine Arts Department & on to the river at Prajan pier), I feel the need to reassure myself that this is not North Korea, and even North Korea is probably not really North Korea. By early afternoon, Rajdamnern road was open to traffic & most people were gone, just a few stragglers hailing a cab or climbing on buses with their micro-overnight bags. At every 10-12 metre interval a cop on full alert still stood, back to the road, facing the crowd or rather by now the mostly empty pavement. In front of the Royal Hotel yellow-scarved volunteers were handing out bananas to the people, further enriching the zoo-like atmosphere with all the gate-keepers & metal barriers.
At the Mother Earth shrine Sorting & Filtering Point, a male volunteer said immediately, “Trousers, no. Skirts only”. Another volunteer, a patrician woman, then said my khaki trousers were brown, not black. It’s the day after the Cremation & the ashes have been collected, but my clothes were just not black enough.
A beautifully-dressed Indian yuppie couple, possibly honeymooners, approached, hoping for a tour of the Grand Palace which they didn’t know was still closed to the public. “Your dress too casual, cannot enter,” she told them, because her skirt was red.
in front of Royal Hotel, afternoon 27 Oct 2017
in front of Royal Hotel, afternoon 27 Oct 2017
At another S & F point opposite the National Museum which also rejected my khaki pants, a respectable middle-aged couple stood disappointed. Both looked like kind professors, all in black & the wife in a dress. But his trousers were wrong. They were black, yes, but they were jeans. “All these rules: no sandals, no jeans. Such an emphasis on appearances,” one of them said. This set the 3 of us talking about the new Supreme Patriarch’s brief but intense pre-Cremation sermon in praise of the late King’s sympathetic simplicity; how his compassionate qualities beautify & uplift the simplest surroundings, just as the most splendid of settings cannot redeem disgusting people who remain disgusting (“na rangiad”—contemptible, to be shunned). I then remembered that I had a white scarf printed in black with the number 9 & King Bhumibol’s motto ‘Por Piang’ (“Enough”/ “Self-suffient”) from designer Maynart Nandakwang’s breast cancer campaign. The 2 professors agreed it would be an interesting experiment for me to wear it as a sarong over my objectionable trousers & see if I’d get past the Sorting & Filtering process. As they watched from a safe distance in amusement, I wrapped it over my trousers & reapproached the checkpoint with the camera running.
“Flipflops not allowed!” the same young cop said triumphantly. To my delight, on cue a group of women in similar black flipflops emerged from the enclosure. The big boss fat cop said he didn’t know which checkpoint let them in; it wasn’t his checkpoint, so that is that. If I really must know, I should find out which & ask the people there. This was so redolent of the Alice in Wonderland logic thrown at us over ‘Shakespeare Must Die’, it triggered my symptoms of PTSD. There are no hard & fast rules, then, I said; it’s just up to your personal judgement, the sorter & filterer’s personal estimation of each individual ‘supplicant’. The boss cop turned & walked back inside as the young cop started filming me.
I walked on in a trance towards the river; perhaps I’d catch a river boat & then a train home. At the Fine Arts Department and Thammasart corner, in answer to my request for a clarification of the rules, a pompous middle-aged male volunteer with a white moustache ordered me to immediately stop filming him & then, unprompted by anything, burst into an American English tirade: “You have no legal right to film me! I know the law. I know my rights. You cannot film me if I refuse permission blah blah..” But we’re on a public street, I said, puzzled by his extreme reaction. And why are you speaking English? You don’t live here, do you? He nodded proudly. He positively smirked.
Fine if that’s what you prefer, I said back in English. You come here to volunteer for a few days & suddenly you’re the Number One patriot, you own everything & control everyone. You think you’re better than the people who live here through thick & thin, good times & bad, who have fought & died for this country for years & years as it’s attacked by your fucking empire. Go back to your country. Fuck off back to America.
It shocked him speechless. But a senior-looking monk with a shining face stood by smiling instead of doing the monkish thing of telling me to calm down. I could swear he seemed quite pleased. It was as if such scenes went on all day as I’d heard from afar. Nobody seemed surprised, only the cops & the Thai American volunteer.
“Those ones over there are the worst,” said a win motorcy (motorcycle taxi rider) nearby. “We’ve nearly come to blows with them at least twice. This is our livelihood & they tell us to leave the area. We provide a service to people. Once they told us to park on one side & then told the crowd we were providing free rides for mourners. We never said such a thing. How can we afford to do that?” To continue the conversation, I hired him to take me home, all the way across town.
His granny came by bus from far-off Ubol but they told her she wasn’t smartly dressed enough. “My gran’s so old, coming so far. I don’t understand their thinking.” Her wrong ‘mai rieb roy’ outfit barred her from proximity with her beloved King’s remains. “Why couldn’t they have let her in? What are they made of?” he asked me as we sped away from these oppressive scenes back to unexotic, humdrum but freewheeling modern Bangkok.
“The King belongs to us all. That’s how we belong to the King,” I shouted back over his shoulder against the wind. “No one has the sole distribution right to the King, since the King and the land are one, so the King is everywhere.”
“I love that, sister. It’s true.”
The King is everywhere. You don’t have to go the palace area or any officially designated site where a Replica Royal Pyre [“Phra Merumas Jumlong”] has been set up with their accompanying long lines, since even to enter the replicas you are to adhere to the same strict dress code. I told him how the tree in front of my house is the meeting place for the maids & nannies of the soi; I could overhear their anxiety over the “700 baht shoes” they’d have to buy to be able to say goodbye to the King who advocated simplicity. Another solved the problem by borrowing her mistress’ shoes. This inspired us to do our own thing last night at the exact same time as the real cremation, right in front of the house, burning aromatic dry herbs & flowers in a pure flame fed by sandalwood oil from Rajasthan in my mother’s possibly museum piece prehistoric stove from Isan, which is surely a properly sacred receptacle for our grief and farewell wishes. The win motorcy was impressed.
26 October 2017 at 10:22 pm
We agreed that some of these volunteers with their boyscout scarves & blue caps were reminiscent of Village Scouts [‘Luke Sua Chaobarn’—nationalist royalist grass roots militia first set up around 1971 to battle communism at the height of Vietnam War]. I shared my nagging worry that people will start lynching & hanging people from tamarind trees again, as they did on October 6, 1976 in the same environs. “Oh, my dear sister! That gives me the creeps,” he said, “I know exactly what you mean.” Except they wouldn’t be tamarind trees we’re hanging from, since the ancient, history-soaked tamarind trees of the Royal Ground have been removed to make way for the Royal Pyre which is instead decorated with neat rows of potted Thai-style bonsai trees [Tako dud], giving an unreal, fantasy Thai litrerature appearance to the whole spotless, symmetrical precinct. Many people are upset about the tamarind trees & hope they will return after the pavilions are taken down. In my old slides of a rehearsal for Queen Rambhai’s funeral procession, the feathery green foliage of the tamarind trees burnished the gold & the red & the whiteness of the vestments of the Brahmin priests aglow with magic light, and of course on the day she really was curled up inside the urn passing us by.
25 Oct 2017, 5 pm
Our cross-town exchange, shouted exuberantly against the wind as we weaved through traffic, gave some relief to both of us. It does help to remind ourselves in the face of such exclusivity that the spirit of monarchy means that the King & the land are one, and so the King is everywhere. No single person or institution owns the King; the King belongs to everyone, in fact and in imagination. King Bhumibol is part of our personal story & our song too must be heard.
Do what you will, I am not going to go back in time with you to Lhuang Vichit – Field Marshall P fascist dress codes & cheap chauvinistic brand of ultra-nationalism or “peace & order” in uniformity & synchronicity. “Even the marigolds [that we’re told to plant everywhere for the Royal Cremation] must bloom in unison [“Dogmai yang tong barn prom-priang gun”], joked one newsreader. I can promise you that if this is the road insisted upon, our civil disobedience will soon be reflected in all our actions.
The one predictable thing about Thai people is our need for oxygen, & lots of it. At any time we’re made to feel that there’s no air to breathe, we burst out of the box regardless of consequences. How we do this & the nature of the final straw or trigger is never predictable, always underestimated & rarely foreseen by those in power, among whom are included locked-in syndrome journalists & academics.
at Wat Tart Tong, 26 Oct 2017, 6 pm
When you exclude an outcast like me, you only delight me with good stock footage for a future film & confirm my prejudices against (& problem with) authorities. There is no element of surprise. Of course you keep me out; you always do.
But when you exclude those with the overwhelmingly sincere belief that King Bhumibol was their “Royal Papa” [“Por Lhuang”] and their ideal, with whom they share an eternal unbreakable bond, the sense of betrayal must sting. Then when they are further deprived of the live coverage of the actual cremation, deprived of the sight of their Beloved rising to heaven in an awe-inspiring cloud of smoke as he became one with the sky over their heads; when even this traditional exorcism of grief was denied to them, that energy will seek another outlet to express itself, to disperse or explode & dematerialize. To use my favoured exorcism terms, the psychic crisis with its subsequent release has not been achieved. Just as the climax was expected to occur, the live feed to the TV pool was switched off.
on one end & Sukhumvit Hospital on the other), 26 Oct 2017, 6 pm
The queue to say goodbye to King Rama IX at Wat Tart Tong,
26 Oct 2017, 6 pm
Since TV outlets were forbidden to broadcast live from the scene (except of the crowd & the periphery) or to hook up feed from ordinary spectators’ Facebook live (Nation TV & one other channel was penalized with a 2-day press pass ban for this), most of the nation never saw, live, the all-important image of the smoke rising from the Royal Pyre, like the closing of curtains signaling the end of an era. At Queen Rambhai’s funeral in 1985 which I was privileged to attend, this was the moment, the sight of it, that crystalised for me the enigma of our story in all my conspiracy theories, so much of our history & how the real magic of monarchy is achieved by allowing room for everybody’s personal expression, contribution & participation, and so achieving an authentic unity through an effortless & healthy dose of mutual respect. Seated below the Royal pavilion, over my head I heard the amazed voice of a grand old lady, “The people are overflowing the Pyre!” There was no airconditoning; the one pavilion was al fresco, so those on the fringes like me could hear everything. “They’ve come to say goodbye to King Rama VII,” someone replied. Rama VII, Queen Rambhai’s husband King Prajadhipok, who had an exile’s simple war-time ceremony at a utilitarian English crematorium attended by a handful of relatives.
I recall the smoke rising into a still & overcast April twilight, unlike Thursday night’s epic cloud of smoke with its phantasmal formations & “miraculous appearance” of ten white cranes at dead of night. The smoke then rising displayed no magic other than to rise up calmly, much like Queen Rambhai herself. Yet time stood still & silent for many of us as all of history past, present & future seemed to converge to hang suspended in the air, which thronged with names we know whose faces we cannot see, as entities invisible make themselves known in the smoke cloud for a spell. Other royal funerals gone before seemed to roll by before us, & in my case the imprint of that one glimpse has remained.
What portents will be read in this far more spectacular smoke cloud? Laced with white cranes, burgeoning against the aural background of chanting & ancient music and, below that, an even note of people sobbing, like the persistent call of crickets in a forest of humans all in black.
26 Oct 2017, 6 pm
Tuesday 31 october 2017, Bangkok
Perhaps you’ve heard what’s been happening in Chonburi, how hundreds of people have risen up to demand the immediate transfer of the provincial governor for his mishandling of the Replica Cremation, giving preferential treatment to VIPs while the people waited in long lines for hours in the full sun & then closing it down while the lines were still long. Watching the Chonburi protest live on New & Nation TV, it was hard not to be impressed by the calmness of their rage, their clarity & implacability. They had been treated as less than human, and that too at a moment of great pain, so the governor must go. One man concludes: “He’s not even from here. How can he rule us people of Chonburi?” So much for unity. As ye divide, so shall ye reap. Similar trouble has been occurring elsewhere, including in the Bangkok satellite town of Nonthaburi.
Such emphasis on the separation between the people & their King, including by discriminating against certain types & excluding those who can’t afford shoes from physical proximity to the royal precinct, is likely to create a dangerous rift that will widen with time. Some blame such mistakes on the inexperience of the all-new staff at the Royal Household Bureau, since the old staff which had been the capable wind beneath the monarchy’s wings, including members of a family that had served the institution for generations, are all gone with the end of the 9th reign. If this is true, things might improve as the new staff gain the necessary experience in the difficult art of ensuring calm continuity.
Incidentally, 42 people with outstanding arrest warrants attempted to get through the S & F checkpoints. When reporters asked if their crimes included lese majeste, the police said that information was confidential. The only thing we know is that they were, of course, arrested.
Friday 4 November, Full Moon (Loy Krathong)
By default I’ve made a close study of crowds from years of filming & editing protest footage. I think it’s a pity that security concerns are necessarily preventing the full flowering of the Royal Cremation crowd ecology. It’s endlessly fascinating to observe over time how each crowd weaves its own morphic field (imaginative reality) & ecology—the communal kitchens & medical tents, security & waste arrangements, protest t-shirt vendors, etc. Protest or event t-shirts are a fun barometer of a crowd’s mood, but t-shirts featuring the image of the Royal Crematorium have for some reason been banned as disrespectful.
The longer the crowd is there, the more elaborate the village that develops. In Lumpini Park some farmers taking part in Shutdown Bangkok managed to grow some rice & vegetables over the 7 long months of their occupation. The Shutdown villages of multi-coloured tents & pink mosquito nets, with laundry hanging out to dry, had an unpretentious charm & inner harmony, even though at first glance it may appear “disorderly” since everyone’s in maximum expressionist & survivalist mode. The beautiful thing was they didn’t have to suppress or sacrifice any part of themselves or their values to be there.
This difference forcefully reminded me of our recent Shakespearean fascist woes. As with Thai cinema, the attempt to tame all individual expression in order to create the illusion of harmony through uniformity—of colour, dress, expression; would naturally discourage the crowd or community in question from evolving any organic ecology—any life, in a word.
You may say I’m comparing apples & oranges: mourners versus a protest mob. I am not so much comparing them as to affirm that, in the epic movie we call history, the great mass of the people are not the extras but the stars.
With Love from Bangkok,
All photographs by Ing K unless otherwise stated
A pioneer of environmental investigative reporting, Ing Kanjanavanit is a filmmaker, painter & bilingual writer, best known in Thai for the cult classic travelogue/handbook for environmental activism, ‘Khang Lhang Postcard’ (‘Behind the Postcard’) under the nom de guerre Lharn Seri Thai (136)—‘Free Thai Descendent/Force 136’, to evoke the Free Thai Movement against fascist forces during World War 2, which fought for the Allies then after the war was betrayed by the Allies. Sadly, she no longer attends Free Thai merit-making rites, not since Thaksin’s redshirts appropriated the name & equated Thaksin with Free Thai leader Pridi Banomyong, which is a travesty & a sacrilege.