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article imageThais bid final goodbye to beloved King Bhumibol

By Sippachai KUNNUWONG and Sally MAIRS (AFP)     Oct 25, 2017 in World

Thailand bade farewell to late King Bhumibol Adulyadej Thursday in an elaborate, ritual-soaked funeral in Bangkok's historic quarter that gripped a nation mourning the loss of its chief unifying figure.

But after a day of pomp, pageantry and high anticipation, Thais were left confounded as the cremation of a monarch who ruled for seven decades unexpectedly took place behind closed doors.

Earlier 300,000 black-clad mourners packed the streets, many weeping and prostrating themselves on the ground as a golden chariot carrying the royal urn slowly snaked through the city's old quarter.

Pipers, drummers and soldiers in a dazzling array of costumes joined Buddhist monks, Brahmin priests and the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn as the procession made its way to the glittering funeral pyre.

The $90 million funeral drew a "Who's Who" of Thai power -- royals, generals and establishment figures -- as well as scores of foreign guests including Britain's Prince Andrew and Japan's Prince Akishino and Princess Akishino.

Some members of the military dropped to the ground as the Royal Urn passed by
Some members of the military dropped to the ground as the Royal Urn passed by
Roberto SCHMIDT, AFP

King Vajiralongkorn was scheduled to light his father's pyre at 10pm (1500GMT) in an event which was set to be broadcast across Thai media to bring closure after a year of mourning to a people who enjoyed an intimate bond with the late king.

But the decision to cremate in private wrong-footed mourners.

"The late King has been cremated but no broadcasting was allowed," an official from the Royal Household Bureau told AFP, as media were suddenly dispersed from the area around the king's pyre.

For the public, the lavish affair was a chance to say a final goodbye to a monarch cherished as the "father of the nation".

"I was surprised they didn't broadcast the cremation," said Nuttidar Bangsri, 52, who had slept on the pavement near the cremation site for five days.

Vajiralongkorn, who wore full military regalia during the earlier ceremonies, will be crowned after his father is laid to rest.

Thailand’s late King Bhumibol Adulyadej
Thailand’s late King Bhumibol Adulyadej
Gal ROMA, AFP

The untested monarch has yet to win the same affection among the Thai public as his father, who towered over decades of Thai history before his death last October aged 88 seeded uncertainty in a country ruled by a divisive junta.

A brew of palace propaganda and a harsh lese majeste law burnished the reputation of Bhumibol, who was crowned in 1950, throughout his reign.

But Bhumibol's close connection with his subjects was on display Thursday.

"He was perfect. He helped the country and Thai people so much. Seventy million Thai people are united in their love for him," said 65-year-old Wacharadej Tangboonlabkun, who like most Thais knew no other monarch before Bhumibol's death.

- Tumultuous reign -

The death of a figure of constancy in a politically combustible country has dipped the kingdom into uncertainty.

"There's no more a father who only gave to his children," 47-year-old mourner Kingkan Kuntavee told AFP.

The funeral has been a day of spectacular pomp and pageantry
The funeral has been a day of spectacular pomp and pageantry
Roberto SCHMIDT, AFP/File

For much of Bhumibol's long reign, Thailand remained stuck on a carousel of violent protests, short-lived civilian governments and coups.

Political turmoil threw up a supply of junta leaders and prime ministers, but all lacked Bhumibol's moral capital with the Thai people.

He left behind one of the world's richest monarchies, one that stands at the apex of one of Southeast Asia's most unequal societies.

Deference towards the monarchy -- and the social elites it underpins -- is a given in Thailand.

In a sign of the pervasive hierarchy, palace aides shuffled on their knees in the presence of the new king, as monks in orange robes chanted Buddhist prayers.

Mourners have been laying flowers as a sign of respect for the late Thai king
Mourners have been laying flowers as a sign of respect for the late Thai king
YE AUNG THU, AFP

Thailand's royal defamation law shields the monarchy from criticism and scrutiny, carrying 15-year jail sentences for each charge.

That law makes independent analysis and frank public debate about the monarchy impossible inside Thailand.

The ruling junta has jailed record numbers of people under the law since seizing power in a 2014 coup.

Aged just 18 when he ascended the throne, the US-born Bhumibol became the fulcrum of the palace and was the world's longest-reigning monarch until his death.

The crown flourished with heavy US backing as Washington sought a bulwark against the spread of Communism across Southeast Asia.

Thais have donned black for much of the last year in a remarkable outpouring of grief, which officially ends on October 30.

They are expected to return to colourful clothes at the conclusion of the mourning period, which celebrates the king's ascent to Mount Meru, the centre of the universe in Buddhist, Hindu and Jain cosmology.

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