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Thai Government Moves to Reassure Roadmap to Elections on Target

Thailand's Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha (L) and his wife Naraporn (R) pay respect after offering condolences for Thailand's late King Bhumibol Adulyadej at the Grand Palace in Bangkok, Thailand, Oct. 14, 2016.

Thailand’s military government has reaffirmed its backing of a “political roadmap” for national elections in late 2017 even as the country is engulfed in mourning over the passing of King Bhumipol Adulayadej, who died last week at the age of 88.

A Thai government spokesperson said the Cabinet and administration were trying to ensure “a business as usual” approach to government going forward during the once in a generation royal transition.

The military government came to power in May 2014 by way of a coup ousting the elected government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra. But analysts say the military had been expected to intervene during the royal transition, with its role seen as an attempt to provide stability.

In recent days, tens of thousands of Thais have been flocking to the Grand Palace in central Bangkok to pay their last respects where the king’s body is being kept in the Dusit Maha Prasart Throne Hall.

Buddhist ceremonies at the Throne Hall have been held, with the royal family, led by heir apparent Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, overseeing the rituals as part of the year-long mourning period.

Outside the palace, long lines of people wearing black arrive from early morning, braving heat and monsoon rains for an opportunity to pay their respects to the monarch who reigned for more than 70 years.

Student Ponlawat Promdech reflected on the passing of the world longest reigning monarch.

“I felt like I needed to only be here. I am very sad. I never thought that today would happen,” Ponlawat said.

Heavy bookings have been reported on airlines and public transport to Bangkok, with state bus and rail networks increasing services to meet the expected demand. An initial mourning period of 30 days, with some restrictions on entertainment and promotions, is in place, while the official mourning period extends a full year.

Thai mourners stand in line to pay their respect to the body of the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej at the Grand Palace in Bangkok, Thailand, Oct. 15, 2016.
Thai mourners stand in line to pay their respect to the body of the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej at the Grand Palace in Bangkok, Thailand, Oct. 15, 2016.

The government had called for people to wear black or similar clothing during the 12 months. But heavy demand for black clothes and price gauging by some sellers have led officials to call for allowing the wearing of black ribbons instead.

Amid the long lines outside the Grand Palace, volunteers provide food, while others are assisting visitors outside Bangkok with food boxes.

Beneath the sadness there are also some tensions highlighting the acute sensitivity and emotional climate in the country. Any comments on social media considered disparaging have been targeted by local communities and those responsible can face charges of lèse-majesté (injured majesty) and lengthy prison sentences.

In southern Thailand’s resort island of Phuket, angry crowds gathered outside the residence of a man they claimed had insulted the monarchy, according to media reports. On the island of Samui, a 43-year-old Thai woman had to receive police protection after being accused of criticizing the monarchy and was forced to make a public apology at the police station.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak, an associate professor at Chulalongkorn University, in a commentary said Thais had a passionate regard for the late king that appeared as “deity worship,” when in fact, “the late monarch enjoyed a reverence and respect that was organic and bottom up."

The Thai Foreign Ministry has already condemned foreign media reporting of King Bhumipol’s death, with several international television broadcasters [including Al Jazeera, the BBC and Australian TV] facing breaks in transmission when reporting on the king’s death.

The Foreign Ministry was critical of foreign media’s reporting of the numbers of people – reported as ‘thousands’ by foreign media, with the Thai officials saying they expected ‘millions’ to mark the king’s passing.

“Such practices are not only unethical but also unprofessional, insensitive to the feelings of the Thai people and offensive towards Thai cultural traditions,” the ministry said.

International media reports have also highlighted Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn’s past reputation as a playboy and having been divorced three times. Analysts say the crown prince faces challenges as he prepares to take up the role held by his father for so long.

The crown prince, 63, has requested a delay in ascending to the throne, with the coronation taking place after the royal cremation ceremony.

In the interim, the head of the king’s advisory body, the Privy Council, Prem Tinsulanonda, 96, a former military officer and prime minister, will act as regent pro tempore (for the time being).