We love pomp – grand spectacles of celebration or mourning, which give us as humans a deeper connection to a loved one and to each other. Even as we may try to lead modest lives, people throughout the world reveled in watching the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Di, and more recently, the wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton. We as a nation collectively mourned the loss of our great president John Kennedy in 1963, when hundreds of thousands of people lined up in front of the White House where he lied in state, for a chance to bid a beloved leader farewell. The entire nation wept, and heads of state and royalty from the world over flew to Washington to pay their respects. The total cost of about $40 million adjusted for inflation was not even an issue, nor should it have been.
It’s no surprise that no expense was spared to bid farewell to the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the ninth monarch of Thailand’s Chakri dynasty, who was on the throne for 70 years. We witnessed two types of grandeur during His Majesty’s funeral – the funeral itself at the Grand Palace, and the grandeur of the throngs of everyday Thai people coming out to show their devotion and admiration to a man they called “father to all Thai people.” The grand event gave all Thai people a chance to mourn, but even more than that, it gave them a chance to connect with one another, and to connect a little more deeply with their own history and culture and to show the world a glimpse of something marvelous. For the past year, thousands of artists have been preparing sculptures and works of art, and rehearsing for beautiful traditional performances. Renowned Thai poets – including my wife – devoted time and energy to crafting just the perfect words to mark the occasion. It was a chance not only to mourn a man who, for most Thai people, was the only King they had ever known, it was a chance to show the world some of the best Thai culture, artwork and traditional performance.
Public performances on three stages near the grand Palace showed the world some of Thailand’s most treasured performance art, including traditional masked Khon performances, which I had a chance to see on the live broadcast. It wasn’t just a funeral. It was Thai people saying to the world, “This is who we are.”
What about the cost?
Much of the Western press, especially the BBC, has criticized the cost of the event, which weighed in at $90 million. It may seem lavish to the uninitiated, but nothing less is expected by the Thai people, most of whom have never known life under another monarch, and consider the late king as the father of all Thai people. Why did we watch Princess Di’s wedding, which cost, adjusted for inflation, $110 million? Because it gave us hope. Because we enjoyed the spectacle, and we wished Charles and Di well, and the BBC certainly didn’t complain too much about that. The Thai people must have this traditional ritual as part of the grieving process.
We do, as individuals and as citizens of our own countries, want and need these celebrations – although we are often quick to criticize other countries for doing the same thing. The state funeral of the Queen Mother (mother of Queen Elizabeth) cost £111,000 for the carriage processions alone. By all accounts, Winston Churchill’s 1965 funeral was also a grand event with over 300,000 mourners filing past his casket, covered by the Union Jack, as he lie in state and a million people gathering along the cortege route. Queen Elizabeth celebrated her Diamond Jubilee – 60 years on her throne – at incredible cost, with a flotilla of 1,000 boats and the Royal Barge on the Thames. The cost of the extra national holiday alone neared £1.2 billion.
Looking at it from that perspective, the $90 million does not seem out of line.
What about the PR machine?
Some of the criticism in the Western press suggests that the late king was so popular only because a massive public relations machine made him so as a means of propping up the military junta. This too, is misleading. Was he popular? Yes, absolutely. Did he have a PR machine? Sure. Every head of state, every monarch, every big businessperson, and every president has one. Does the British royal family have a PR engine? Sure. Does President Trump? Oh, yeah. But the purpose of a PR machine isn’t just to say, “Look at what a great guy I am.” The purpose of it is to enhance the value of the actual work being done.
Here’s an example. King Bhumibol was known to be an animal lover. At one time he adopted a stray dog, whom he named Tongdaeng. Naturally as King, he could have any purebred dog he wanted, but he adopted Tongdaeng, a beautiful mutt. The act got a lot of press, and the King himself wrote a book about it which became quite popular. Was there PR behind that? Sure. But the purpose of that PR was not to glorify the King – what happened as a result was a tremendous social good. Thailand, especially Bangkok, has a problem with too many stray dogs on the streets. People saw the King adopting Tongdaeng, and they started adopting strays themselves. They started donating money to animal shelters. It raised awareness of a social problem, and began a move towards solving it.
Revered as a god?
Another common mistake on the part of the Western press is the common statement that King Bhumibol was seen as a god. To say he was revered as a god is a little misleading, and “god” in Buddhist belief has a different meaning than the Christian definition. To a Christian in the West, it’s a shocking statement and would seem to be blasphemous to say such a thing, but let’s take it in a Buddhist context. In Christianity, “god” is a single entity, separate from humanity, and something to which no human can aspire. In Buddhism, the concept of “god” is a little different, and seen as something within us all, to which we CAN aspire after many lifetimes of reincarnation. King Bhumibol may be seen, appropriately from a Buddhist context, to be a bodhisattva – not a god, but a human who has achieved near god-like perfection — because of his good works for his people, and revered as such. Not really a “god” in the Western sense of the word, but those in the foreign press often interpret it as such.
The criticism of the funeral of the late King is misplaced and based on incorrect perceptions. It was a funeral befitting a beloved monarch, and a once-in-a-lifetime event that the Thai people want and need to be able to move on.FOLLOW NEWSORG.ORG ON SOCIAL MEDIA