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Thailand grieves in elaborate final goodbye to King Bhumibol

October 27, 2017

BANGKOK (AP) — With solemn faces and outright tears, Thais said farewell to their king and father figure with elaborate funeral ceremonies that cap a year of mourning and are steeped in centuries of tradition.

Smoke rose just before midnight Thursday from the spectacularly ornate crematorium built in the year since King Bhumibol Adulyadej died. On Friday morning, his son, current King Maha Vajiralongkorn, participated in a religious ceremony to move his father’s ashes to special locations for further Buddhist rites. Thai television broadcast pictures of Vajiralongkorn bathing Bhumibol’s relics — charred bones — and placing them in golden reliquary urns.

The five-day funeral began Wednesday with Vajiralongkorn performing Buddhist merit-making rites. On Thursday, a ceremonial urn representing Bhumibol’s remains was transferred from Dusit Maha Prasad Throne Hall to the crematorium in somber processions involving thousands of troops, a golden palanquin, a gilded chariot and a royal gun carriage.

The urn, placed under a nine-tiered white umbrella and accompanied by a palace official, was hoisted into the main chamber of the golden-spired crematorium as monks chanted, traditional instruments wailed and artillery fired in the distance. The king then climbed the red-carpeted steps to light candles and incense in honor of his father.

On a day designated a public holiday in the kingdom, tens of thousands of mourners dressed all in black watched the processions from streets in Bangkok’s royal quarter and millions more saw broadcasts aired live on most TV stations and shown at designated viewing areas across the country.

Before dawn, 63-year-old Somnuk Yonsam-Ar sat on a paper mat in a crowd opposite the Grand Palace. Her granddaughter slept in her lap and her husband rested his head against a metal barrier. The family came from the coastal province of Rayong, where they run a food stall.

Somnak waved a fan to cool herself but said she was not tired. “I feel blessed to be able to sit here, and be part of this,” she said. “It’s an important day for us.” Bhumibol’s death at age 88 on Oct. 13, 2016, after a reign of seven decades sparked a national outpouring of grief. Millions of Thais visited the throne hall at the Grand Palace to pay respects.

Deceased Thai royals have traditionally been kept upright in urns during official mourning. But Bhumibol, who spent much of his early life in the West, opted to be put in a coffin, with the royal urn placed next to it for devotional purposes.

The ceremonial urn was at the center of Thursday’s processions, including one led by the current king when the golden container was placed upon the Great Victory Chariot. Built in 1795 and made of gilded and lacquered carved wood, the chariot has been used to carry the urns of royal family members dating to the start of the Chakri dynasty.

As the chariot, pulled by hundreds of men in traditional red uniforms, passed the mourners lining the parade route, they prostrated themselves, pressing their folded hands and head on the ground in a show of reverence.

In the evening, a symbolic cremation was witnessed by royalty and high-ranking officials from 42 countries. Orange-robed monks chanted Buddhist prayers to bless Bhumibol’s spirit as the official guests waited to offer sandalwood flowers at the crematorium built to represent mystical Mount Meru, where Buddhist and Hindu gods are believed to dwell.

Bhumibol’s ashes and relics will be transferred to the Grand Palace and the Temple of The Emerald Buddha for further Buddhist rites, and on the final day of the funeral, they are set to be enshrined in spiritually significant locations.

The funeral is by design an intensely somber event, but also rich in history and cultural and spiritual tradition. The adulation Bhumibol inspired was fostered by palace courtiers who worked to rebuild the prestige of a monarchy that lost its mystique and power when a 1932 coup ended centuries of absolute rule by Thai kings.

That effort built a semi-divine aura around Bhumibol, who was protected from criticism by a draconian law that mandates prison of up to 15 years for insulting senior royals. But he was also genuinely respected for his development projects, personal modesty and as a symbol of stability in a nation frequently rocked by political turmoil, though his influence waned in his final years.

Thais have braved tropical heat and torrential monsoon rains to secure street-side vantage points to witness the funeral. Thousands of police and volunteers were on hand to ensure order and entry into the historic royal quarter was tightly controlled to eliminate the faint possibility of protest against the monarchy or military government.

An activist was detained earlier this week after writing on Facebook that he planned to wear red clothing on the day of Bhumibol’s cremation, a color associated with support for elected governments ousted in coups in 2006 and 2014.

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Thais mark 1 year since king’s death with prayers, ceremony

October 13, 2017

BANGKOK (AP) — Thais marked one year since the death of King Bhumibol Adulyadej with solemn ceremonies and acts of personal devotion Friday before an elaborate five-day funeral later this month. Official commemorations of Bhumibol were organized at Bangkok’s Siriraj Hospital, where he died, and at Government House and the ornate royal palace. But many ordinary people showed their respects on the streets, at neighborhood markets and temples, kneeling before orange-robed monks to perform a Buddhist merit-making ritual.

“You see his achievements on TV sometimes, but now that he has passed we are learning about so many other things he has done for the country,” said Panicha Nuapho, 66, who traveled from a province 330 kilometers (205 miles) north of Bangkok to pay respects at Siriraj Hospital. “This is my final send-off,” she said, weeping.

Outside the hospital, mourners clad in black offered alms to a long procession of Buddhist monks and several thousand packed its grounds, joining nurses and doctors in prayers as monks chanted over loudspeakers.

Bhumibol’s death at age 88 after a reign of seven decades sparked a national outpouring of grief and a year of mourning that will culminate with his cremation on Oct. 26. More than 12 million people, or nearly a fifth of Thailand’s population, have visited the palace throne hall where the king’s body has been kept for the past year.

The reverence Bhumibol inspired was in part the result of decades of work by palace officials to rebuild the prestige of the monarchy, which lost much of its influence after a 1932 coup ended centuries of absolute rule by Thai kings. That effort built an aura of divinity around Bhumibol, who was protected from criticism by draconian lese majeste laws, but the king was also genuinely adored for his charitable work, personal modesty and as a symbol of stability in a nation frequently rocked by political turmoil.

Thailand’s military government has asked the public to observe 89 seconds of silence Friday at 3.52 p.m., marking the official time of Bhumibol’s death in what Thai culture emphasizes was his 89th year.

At the same time, nine elephants powdered an auspicious white will kneel with their handlers in memory of Bhumibol in the ancient royal capital Ayutthaya outside of Bangkok. His son, King Maha Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarankun, knelt before a portrait of the late king and Queen Sirikit at Dusit Palace and is expected to preside over merit-making ceremonies on Friday and Saturday. Many people flocked to the palace area and left flowers beneath a giant portrait of Bhumibol.

Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, the head of Thailand’s ruling junta which seized power in a 2014 coup it was said was necessary to restore political stability, oversaw ceremonies at Government House.

The military, which frames itself as the monarchy’s most important defender, has used Thailand’s harsh lese majeste laws with increased frequency in the past three years. The law allows for prison of up to 15 years for anyone found guilty of insulting senior members of the royal family.

Supporters of the law argue that the monarchy is a sacred pillar of Thai society and must be protected at all costs. Critics say the law is being used to silence dissent.

Thai court to issue arrest warrant after ex-PM doesn’t show

August 25, 2017

BANGKOK (AP) — Thailand’s Supreme Court said it will issue an arrest warrant for former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra after she failed to show Friday for a contentious trial verdict in which she could face a 10-year prison term for alleged negligence in overseeing a money-losing rice subsidy program.

A judge read out a statement saying that Yingluck’s lawyers had informed the court she could not attend because of an earache. But the judge said the court did not believe the excuse because no official medical verification was provided, and the court would issue a warrant for her arrest as a result.

Yingluck’s whereabouts were not immediately known, fueling speculation that she might have fled the country. There was no evidence, however, that she had left Thailand. A verdict had been expected to be delivered within hours in the case, which the court postponed until Sept. 27. Yingluck has pleaded innocent, and decries the charges against her as politically motivated. If convicted, she has the right to appeal.

The trial is the latest chapter in a decade-long struggle by the nation’s elite minority to crush the powerful political machine founded by Yingluck’s brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, who was toppled in a 2006 coup. Thaksin, who has lived in Dubai since fleeing a corruption conviction he says was politically motivated, has studiously avoided commenting on his sister’s case, apparently to avoid imperiling it.

Thaksin is a highly polarizing figure here, and his overthrow triggered years of upheaval and division that has pitted a poor, rural majority in the north that supports the Shinawatras against royalists, the military and their urban backers.

When Yingluck’s government proposed an amnesty in 2013 that could have absolved her brother and allowed him to return without being arrested, street protests erupted that eventually led to her government’s demise in a 2014 military coup.

The junta that seized control of Thailand has clamped down harshly since then, suppressing all dissent and banning political gatherings of more than five people. The long-awaited decision on Yingluck’s fate has rekindled tensions in the divided nation, but the military remains firmly in charge.

Fearing potential unrest, authorities tried to deter people from turning out Friday by threatening legal action against anyone planning to help transport Yingluck supporters. Yingluck also posted a message on her Facebook page urging followers to stay away, saying she worried about their safety.

Thousands of people turned up outside the Bangkok court house anyway, though, along with thousands of police who erected barricades around the court. Prawit Pongkunnut, a 55-year-old rice farmer from the northeastern city of Nakhon Ratchasima, said he came with 10 other farmers to show solidarity with Yingluck.

“We’re here to give her moral support because she truly cared and helped us out,” Prawit said. The rice subsidies, promised to farmers during the 2011 election, helped Yingluck’s party ascend to power. Critics say they were effectively a means of vote-buying, while Yingluck supporters welcomed them.

The rice subsidy plan Yingluck oversaw paid farmers about 50 percent more that they would have made on the world market. The hope was to drive up prices by stockpiling the grain, but other Asian producers filled the void instead, knocking Thailand from its perch as the world’s leading rice exporter.

The current government, which is still trying to sell off the rice stockpiles, says Yingluck’s administration lost as much as $17 billion because it couldn’t export at a price commensurate with what it had paid farmers.

In a separate administrative ruling that froze her bank accounts, Yingluck was held responsible for about $1 billion of those losses — an astounding personal penalty that prosecutors argued Yingluck deserved because she ignored warnings of corruption but continued the program anyway.

Associated Press journalists Grant Peck and Kankanit Wiriyasajja contributed to this report.

Thai ex-PM urges supporters to stay away from court ruling

August 24, 2017

BANGKOK (AP) — Friends and foes alike of former Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra are anxiously awaiting a verdict Friday by the Supreme Court on charges she was criminally negligent in implementing a rice subsidy program that is estimated to have cost the government as much as $17 billion and could send her to prison for 10 years.

Thousands of supporters had been expected to appear outside the courthouse to demonstrate their solidarity with Yingluck, but on Thursday she posted a message on her Facebook page urging them not to come. Yingluck said she was worried about their safety in case there is “chaos that could be instigated by a third party, as security officials have always said.”

“I want those who wish to support me to listen to the news from home, to avoid risking any unexpected problems that could arise from those who have ill-intentions toward the country and all of us,” she wrote, without naming anyone. She also said that security measures would make it impossible to interact face-to-face with supporters.

Thai authorities have earlier threatened legal action against anyone planning to help transport her supporters and announced plans for a massive deployment of security personnel outside the court, adding vague hints of possible violence that spurred scare headlines in local media.

The upcoming verdict is generally seen as a political judgment as much as a criminal one. The case against Yingluck is the latest in a decade-long offensive against the political machine founded and directed by her brother, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a 2006 military coup for alleged corruption and disrespect for the monarchy.

Thaksin, a telecommunications mogul, has been in self-imposed exile since 2008 to escape a prison sentence on a conflict of interest conviction. The 2006 coup triggered years of sometimes-violent battles for power between his supporters — mainly the less well-off rural majority who delivered him thumping election victories — and opponents — mainly royalists, members of the urban middle and upper classes, as well as the military, which in 2014 ousted Yingluck’s elected government.

Yingluck has appeared calm in the days leading up to the verdict, making merit at Buddhist temples and reportedly praying for a victory in Friday’s ruling. However the Supreme Court rules, the junta is likely to lose face, one analyst said.

If the court rules not guilty, “the generals will have egg on their face,” said Paul Chambers, a political scientist at Naresuan University in northern Thailand. The military’s reasoning for staging the 2014 coup was, in part, to rid the system of corrupt politicians.

If she is found guilty, “then the generals will have to deal with what comes next and that could be a martyr figure,” Chambers said. The rice subsidy was a flagship policy that helped Yingluck’s party win the 2011 general election. The government paid farmers about 50 percent above what they would have received on the world market, with the intention of driving up prices by warehousing the grain.

Instead, other rice-producing countries captured the market by selling at competitive prices. Vietnam as a result replaced Thailand as the world’s leading rice exporter. The military government said Wednesday it expects by next year to finally have sold off the stockpile of 17.8 million tons of rice the subsidy created. It has earned $40 million from the sales but calculates the government lost billions because it couldn’t export at a price commensurate with what it had paid farmers.

Yingluck already has been held responsible for about $1 billion of the losses in an administrative ruling that froze her bank accounts. Prosecutors in the criminal negligence trial argued that Yingluck ignored warnings of corruption in the subsidy program.

“I think the designer of the program did not think carefully, did not understand the functioning of the rice market, particularly the world rice market,” said Niphon Poapongsakorn from the Thailand Development Research Institute, who gave evidence at the trial.

“What they thought (about) was only the beneficial impact of the program, which is not a surprise because I believe the hidden agenda of the policy was to win a landslide election,” he said. Yingluck was ousted as prime minister by a court ruling involving a nepotism case shortly before the coup ejected her government. Since then, she has been formally impeached and banned from political office for five years.

The court cases and possible criminal conviction aside, Yingluck retains great popularity with her base. Millions, like farmer Gaysorn Petcharat, saw their incomes suddenly rise markedly. There was money to buy luxuries and to invest in their farms.

Now Gaysorn’s income has dropped sharply. But her loyalty to Yingluck is unwavering. “If you ask any farmer if they like Yingluck, they all like Yingluck because she was willing to help us,” she said, pausing from harvesting her field in Chachoengsao province outside Bangkok.

“She did her best for us. All my life I’ve never sold rice at such a good price as when she was prime minister,” she said. Yingluck denies the negligence charges. She told the court she was the victim of a “political game” aimed at crushing the Shinawatra clan, first her brother Thaksin, and now her.

Some analysts agree, and believe the prosecution’s approach sets a dangerous precedent. “I think it is clear enough that politics is involved in the Yingluck trial,” said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University.

“I mean, this is a government that was elected in 2011 by a simple majority and it had a policy platform led by the rice pledging scheme. The scheme led to losses probably, but on the other hand, if we use this benchmark for other governments, then we could have a lot of government leaders in jail,” he said.

Surgeons remove 915 coins swallowed by Thai sea turtle

March 07, 2017

BANGKOK (AP) — Tossing coins in a fountain for luck is a popular superstition, but a similar belief brought misery to a sea turtle in Thailand from whom doctors have removed 915 coins. Veterinarians in Bangkok operated Monday on the 25-year-old female green sea turtle nicknamed “Bank,” whose indigestible diet was a result of many tourists seeking good fortune tossing coins into her pool over many years in the eastern town of Sri Racha.

Many Thais believe that throwing coins on turtles will bring longevity. Typically, a green sea turtle has a lifespan of around 80 years, said Roongroje Thanawongnuwech, dean of Chulalongkorn University’s veterinary faculty. It is listed as an endangered species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

The loose change eventually formed a heavy ball in her stomach weighing 5 kilograms (11 pounds). The weight cracked the turtle’s ventral shell, causing a life-threatening infection. Five surgeons from Chulalongkorn University’s veterinary faculty patiently removed the coins over four hours while “Bank” was under general anesthesia. The stash was too big to take out through the 10-cm (4-inch) incision they had made, so it had to be removed a few coins at a time. Many of them had corroded or partially dissolved.

“The result is satisfactory. Now it’s up to Bank how much she can recover,” said Pasakorn Briksawan, one of the surgical team. While recovering in Chulalongkorn University’s animal hospital, the turtle will be on a liquid diet for the next two weeks.

Bank was brought in to veterinarians by the navy, which found her ailing in her seaside hometown. It was only after a detailed 3D scan that veterinarians pinpointed the weighty and unexpected problem. As well as the coins they also found 2 fish hooks, which were also removed today.

The surgery team leader said Monday that when she discovered the cause of the turtle’s agony she was furious. “I felt angry that humans, whether or not they meant to do it or if they did it without thinking, had caused harm to this turtle,” said Nantarika Chansue, head of Chulalongkorn University’s veterinary medical aquatic animal research center.

Thai media began publicizing the turtle’s tale last month after she was found, and in response, some 15,000 baht ($428) in donations was raised from the public to pay for her surgery.

Associated Press writer Kaweewit Kaewjinda in Bangkok contributed to this story.

Crown prince formally becomes Thailand’s new king

December 01, 2016

BANGKOK (AP) — Thailand has a new king, with the country’s crown prince formally taking the throne to succeed his much-revered late father, who reigned for 70 years. The new monarch, who received the title “His Majesty King Maha Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun,” assumed his new position Thursday, according to an announcement broadcast on all TV channels. He will also be known as Rama X, the tenth king in the Chakri dynasty that was founded in 1782.

A videotaped broadcast showed senior officials presenting the formal invitation to the prince to become king, and then his acceptance. It then showed the officials prostrate themselves at the feet of the new king, who was wearing a formal white uniform with decorations.

Vajiralongkorn’s father, Bhumibol Adulyadej, died on Oct. 13 at age 88 after many years of ill health. In 1972, Bhumibol designated Vajiralongkorn — his second child and only son — as his successor. “I would like to accept in order to fulfill his majesty’s wishes and for the benefit of all Thais,” Vajiralongkorn said in the videotape.

Vajiralongkorn, 64, was originally expected to assume the throne the day his father died, but in a surprise announcement, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha said the prince asked for the succession to be put off so he would have time to mourn.

Thailand is a constitutional monarchy — although currently under military rule — but Bhumibol played an important role in stabilizing his country through a time of enormous change which saw neighboring monarchies collapse under the pressures of the Vietnam War. He was especially known for his energy in development activities, doing hands-on inspections in remote rural areas. He calmed the country through several political crises.

Vajiralongkorn faces the challenges of a country that has become fractured over the past decade, as contending political forces engaged in bitter battles that sometimes turned violent, leaving a residue of bad feeling and shaking faith in the democratic system.

The new king, with a less intense interest in state affairs and a reputation as a playboy, does not command the same level of respect as Bhumibol. He has gone through divorces with three women who have borne him seven children, and in recent years has spent much of his time residing in Germany. Although most Thais are devoted to the royal institution, it is hard to gauge how they feel privately about Vajiralongkorn because of harsh laws that mandate a prison term of three to 15 years for anyone found guilty of insulting the monarchy.

Information about the succession has been tightly controlled, and international news broadcasts about Thailand have been blocked in recent days. The prince made his first public appearance in more than a week earlier Thursday, attending a religious ceremony honoring his late father. He was accompanied by his three sisters, two adult daughters and 11-year-old son.

Shortly afterward, he granted an audience to National Legislative Assembly President Pornpetch Wichitcholchai, Prime Minister Prayuth, Supreme Court Chief Justice Veerapol Tungsuwan and former Prime Minister Prem Tinsulanonda, who had been one of his father’s closest advisers and served as regent in the period since Bhumibol’s death.

The Cabinet, proceeding according to a 1924 law on succession, on Tuesday had forwarded to the National Legislative Assembly the late king’s appointment of his son to succeed him. The assembly in turn acknowledged the appointment, and its president then issued an invitation to Vajiralongkorn to become king.

Huge crowds have been paying respects to the late king’s remains at the ceremonial Grand Palace. His remains will be cremated in an elaborate ceremony that may take place a year or more after his death. The official coronation of Vajiralongkorn will occur only after the cremation. Bhumibol’s coronation was in 1950, four years after succeeding his brother King Ananda Mahidol, who died of gunshot wounds in unclear circumstances.

Associated Press journalists Tassanee Vejpongsa and Kaweewit Kaewjinda contributed to this report.

Preparations set for Thai prince to succeed to throne

December 01, 2016

BANGKOK (AP) — Thailand prepared Thursday to welcome a new king, with final arrangements scheduled to formalize the accession of Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn to the throne. National Legislative Assembly President Pornpetch Wichitcholchai is set have an audience with the prince later Thursday to invite him to become king, a constitutional formality, according to the assembly Vice President Peerasak Porchit.

Pornpetch’s public announcement of Vajiralongkorn’s acceptance, expected Thursday night, will complete the succession process, making the 64-year-old prince King Rama X, the tenth monarch in the Chakri dynasty that was founded in 1782.

Vajiralongkorn’s father, the much-revered Bhumibol Adulyadej, who took the throne in 1946, died on Oct. 13 at age 88 after many years of ill health. In 1972, Bhumibol designated Vajiralongkorn — his second child and only son — as his successor.

Vajiralongkorn was originally expected to assume the throne the day his father died, but in a surprise announcement, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha said the prince asked for the succession to be put off so he had time to mourn. In the interim, royal affairs have been overseen by a regent, Prem Tinsulanonda, who along with Prayuth and Supreme Court Chief Justice Veerapol Tungsuwan will accompany the assembly president at his audience to invite the prince to take the throne.

Thailand has been in a state of national mourning since Bhumibol’s death, and huge crowds have been paying respects to the late king’s remains at the Grand Palace in Bangkok. His body will be cremated in an elaborate ceremony that may take place a year or more after his death.

The coronation ceremony for Vajiralongkorn will take place only after the cremation.

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