Agam's Gecko
Sunday, June 18, 2006
Royal Barge
Royal Barge Suphanahongse passes the Grand Palace, Bangkok on June 12, 2006
AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit

he celebrations for His Majesty's anniversary reached an incredible climax last night. It was a stunning spectacle by any standard, even for those of us watching the television broadcast. The event took place at Muang Thong Thani, at the northern fringe of the capital, with hundreds of thousand in attendance. The program incorporated live performance, laser projections, the largest fireworks display ever seen in the Kingdom, with images and video projected upon a massive screens of falling water.

I've never in my life seen anything to match this, and I don't expect I ever will. But in addition to last night's climactic event, the past two weeks have shown the very highest expression of Thai culture, with a unity of love and purpose that would be the envy of any nation. Thais have shown, throughout this period, that His Majesty is truly "more than a monarch." I feel extremely privileged to have been present during these inspiring events in tribute to the Soul of the Nation, Bhumiphol the Great.

Last weekend, after posting the previous article here, your correspondent was called upon for chauffeur duty, and drove some folks upcountry for the long holiday. So while I was out of the capital for most of the big events, I was able to get a feel for how citizens across the country were marking the anniversary in the towns and villages, while also being able to witness the major events which were broadcast nationally. As these involved the participation of royalties (and royal representatives) of 25 countries, His Majesty was required to receive each of them at both the opening and closing of each event. At 78 years of age he shows amazing stamina, for each time it takes about 40 minutes to get through them all. There were several times when his perseverance -- a quality which he has always strove to exemplify to his people -- was very evident, despite the exhaustion of these long periods of standing.

On Monday the 12th there was a reception in the spectacular Ananta Samakhom Throne Hall in the afternoon. It was a formal dress affair -- full bling for all the royals, you might say. About an hour after seeing them all off -- standing up the whole time -- he received them all again at the Thai Royal Navy Institute across the river from the Grand Palace, for the viewing of the Royal Barge Procession. This event was civilian dress, although the Sultans and Emirs of Gulf states looked exactly the same -- from most perspectives just a full length robe with a nose sticking out. One couldn't tell one from the other, except for the representative of the Sultan of Oman, whose head wrap and dark cloak made him look like a taller Qadaffi. I was struck by the contrast between most of these visitors (some of whom still exercise absolute rule) and their tenuous relevance, and the intimate engagement of Thailand's King with his nation. There isn't a single one of them who comes close to his example.

It was said that His Majesty had never witnessed a full procession of all 52 barges, something which is only very rarely done. There have been other lesser processions in past years, such as 1982 for the Bangkok bicentennial and for the APEC conference in 2003. So it truly was a once in a lifetime event, and it seemed that the very forces of the universe were full cooperation. At the precise moment the first of the four Royal Barges, Suphanahongse reached the Grand Palace (pictured above), the clouds parted and the sun glinted brilliantly on her golden features. The sight, and the accompanying sounds of the oarsmen's song created an unforgettable impression.

The boats, proceeding in five ranks across the river's span, ended the journey downriver at Wat Arun, the Temple of the Dawn. Yet dusk was falling, the golden spires of the Grand Palace were tinged by sunset. Then in the growing darkness, thousands of krathong -- small floating lanterns on the river, large floating lanterns rising into the sky -- were simultaneously released. The mightly Chao Phraya and half the sky were filled with points of light, carried along by their respective currents. Along the shore front of the Grand Palace, clouds of water spray and fog were bathed in blue and green light, the spires and roofs radiating brightly in the night, framed by the thousands of krathong passing below and above it. A full moon rose over the scene (from the vantage point across the river), and all forces seemed aligned in tribute. When the tv camera pulled back a little more, the triangular lines of a towering suspension bridge (Rama VIII Bridge, I think) formed a massive backdrop.

In this index of photo galleries there are two which contain pictures of this event, well worth viewing (many of them in quite high resolution - and currently overloading the servers, it seems). The photo above is just the merest taste.

The event then moved from the Navy's riverfront installation to its nearby Convention Hall, a short ride by electric cars through a park-like setting. This was for the opening of an exhibition about His Majesty's many projects, and his philosophy of sustainable and self-reliant development. For the fourth time that day by my count, he stood through another round of receiving each set of royal visitors as they arrived. The main focus here was an informative, artful and quite moving audio visual program about this "Development King" through his reign. At the conclusion, he again stood through the long process of receiving each royal party in turn, before they swept out and down a massive winding staircase to their waiting cars.

He appeared to be holding up well, but it couldn't have been easy. He had heart surgery a few years ago, and this day had much more strenuous activity than he's had to perform in a long while. His steps are smaller these days, and he makes frequent stops. When all the guests had left, HM the King and HM the Queen proceeded toward the big staircase with the rest of the family following. He suddenly stopped. The family gathered up around him, and we couldn't see him. Then some of the Princesses suddenly rushed in the opposite direction. For a moment I thought something bad had happened, they weren't showing where His Majesty was. Then I realised that they must have diverted to an elevator. Good choice, that was one long staircase.

I was feeling a little concerned for His Majesty's stamina, but Perseverance is practically his middle name. The tv pool then showed him emerging at the lower floor's elevator landing -- and what's this? He has to climb a dozen stairs just to get to floor level. Take it slow, take it easy.... a bit of level walking and, good grief! He still has to walk down another long flight. Every person who was watching this live broadcast would have had their heart miss a beat (or two!) when they saw the slight stumble just before he reached the end. I know mine did. There were two bodyguards close, in front and on his right, but he saved himself on the railing and finished the walk -- even stopping to talk to government leaders before getting into his car.

Up until this point the events had been to honour him, but the following night he would host a banquet for the visitors. This was also broadcast live, and didn't wind up until after midnight. He made successive presentations to guests as they departed, and I noticed HM the Queen trying to get him to sit down between each one. He would have none of it, and remained on his feet throughout. It's his duty to set the example.

I sincerely hope His Majesty has been enjoying a well deserved rest since that night, however terrorism would not give the country much of a respite from its depradations. On Thursday a coordinated wave of bombings swept the southern provinces, killing two and wounding dozens in over 40 separate attacks. On Friday came more bombing attacks on railway stations and markets, leaving more injured. Last night (Saturday) a bomb in a Yala hotel karaoke room killed one and wounded two. This morning a remotely detonated bomb targeted a truck of police officers, injuring both police and civilians, and a local politician was shot dead in Narathiwat city.

These are the type of small, hit and run attacks which have run up a death toll of more than 1,300 in the past year and a half. Although it's often impossible to determine which are carried out by jihadists, and which might have been done by other sorts of criminals, I have to wonder if these latest were connected with the release from prison (in Indonesia) of Abu Bakar Ba'asyir (the "Emir" of Jemaah Islamiya), which also took place on Thursday. Police have made arrests in connection with Thursday's attacks, reportedly five locals and one Indonesian citizen.

Mr. Taksin's government (yes, he's back in charge again) seems to be at a complete loss in determining what to do about the southern violence. The jihadis seem to have negligible local support, but it shows how just a few fanatics keeping to the shadows can cause very major and persistent problems.

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