There were plenty of reasons not to stand in one of those unbelievably long queues.
“It would take me a whole day for just 70 seconds in front of the Royal Urn.” “My home is so far away from Sanam Luang.” “I have a very old parent who is not well.” “My health is very poor.” “I’m busy.” “I have to meet very important customers.” “I heard people fainted while waiting, and that toilets are a major issue there.” “I can pay my respects at home.” “No law says I have to go, so sue me.”
Yet more than 12 million have shown up over the past year. Many had to wait longer than people seeking a new iPhone or “hot” concert tickets. And all for those 70 seconds that gave them no time to gather their thoughts and feelings, no boasting rights and no worldly satisfaction whatsoever. If anything, they went simply to shed a few more tears.
Make no mistake, every reason not to go is valid. But the millions of visitors helped elevate what His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej did for Thais, unselfishly, in disregard of his own status, and sometimes in spite of poor health. No law said he had to do what he devoted himself to doing. He could have sat on the throne and read monthly reports, but “home comforts” were never part of his mission. “My place,” he once famously said, “is right here, among the Thai people.”
It’s one year this week since one of the gloomiest days in our Kingdom’s history. Life goes on, but with a lesson that was not forced upon anyone, but taught with gentle perseverance and by example. The late monarch did not preach complicated ideologies. His concept of goodness, happiness and dignity never wavered from simplicity, self-sufficiency, tolerance and non-aggressive unity.
He had his own ideas about prosperity, equality and even civilisation. Whether Thais embrace them wholeheartedly remains to be seen, but the outpouring of grief over the past year has proved that they love him for the person he was, and for the nation he wished to see. His dream was beautiful, but it was set against a backdrop of conventional definitions of success and wealth.
The “Yellow Dust” found themselves caught in the middle. On one side are the textbook descriptions of glory, wealth and rights; on the other is what King Bhumibol subtly taught. The mainstream concepts are powerful, influential and omnipresent, whereas his example was simpler, though harder to emulate nonetheless.
But we respect what we find difficult to emulate, which explains the endless black streams of mourners at the Grand Palace.
One argument in favour of spending a whole day queuing just for those “70 seconds” is that a day is nothing compared to decades dedicated to the people, without the holidays or other luxuries that befit the status of a king. Many present at the Grand Palace carried in their minds images of the map-carrying, camera-pointing and walkie-talkie-holding King that were so common when his legs were strong enough to take him to the remotest parts of Thailand.
The final goodbye, set for later this month, will be deeply emotional, although King Bhumibol on several occasions preached that death is just part of the circle of life. After his mother died, he said he could not help but feel sad, in spite of what she always taught him about life and death. “But to know that so many people love her, it makes me feel somewhat good,” he told an audience.
“The only thing that comforts me is the knowledge that I’m not crying alone,” a woman said on her Facebook a few days ago. A volunteer who’s spent the past few weeks serving mourners at the Grand Palace brushed aside his sacrifice, saying countless others were working harder in unseen, thankless yet meaningful jobs. A film star choked on the lyrics and could barely finish a song calling on Thais to come together for His Majesty.
Signs are everywhere that the “children” are trying. Next month, they may go back to fighting one another or seeking conventional glory and wealth, but right now their appreciation of him is sincere, the grief genuine and the love very real. His words will keep ringing in our ears, although some will heed them sooner than others.
The Yellow Dust used to converge en masse to wish him a long stay, but this time their gathering will be a tearful farewell the scale of which will be unprecedented in modern Thai history. They will say their historic goodbyes against a tidal wave of “modern” ideals, some of which are sceptical towards such love and reverence. After all, a nation in 21st-century mourning at the passing of a revered and deeply loved monarch is nothing but unique.
He is credited with rebuilding a monarchy that was facing the acid test of modernity. The nature of what was being rebuilt may not have been clear as he trekked over rough terrain, brought rain to dry land and worked tirelessly on irrigation projects. In the river of tears flowing through the Kingdom of Thailand now, though, there shall be no doubt.