Watching the King

At Dwight Hall on October 18, the dress code is black. King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand has died, and over one hundred people from Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island have congregated at a service organized by Thai undergraduates at Yale. Among the mourners are the staff of New Haven’s Thai and Thai-owned restaurants: Thai Taste, Pad Thai, Anaya’s Sushi, York Street Noodle Place, and Jeera Thai. As people come forward to place candles and flowers on the altar, they touch their brows to the ground in prayer to a printed image of the late king: a symbol of a symbol. Some cry. Others want a nice photo. When a satisfactory picture is taken, a command follows: “Put it on Face.” “Face” is Thai slang for Facebook, and tonight the phrase is as ubiquitous as “Rest in peace.”

“He’s at peace now,” said Mo, the co-owner of Thai Taste, of the king. Her sadness, she told me, was selfish. Several days after the service, she still wore black to observe the yearlong mourning period. In Thailand, there has been public concern about a shortage of black clothing; state banks have pledged to distribute black clothing to eight million low-income people.

When I went to Thai Taste to interview her, Mo stationed us in the dark, slim corridor leading into the restaurant’s dining room, away from the staff, sprawled and sleeping on couches during the long afternoon. A picture of Queen Sirikit, now solitary, hung in the corridor. The picture of the king that used to hang beside hers had been relocated to a small shrine by the door.

In English, “An angel.” Then, in Thai,“I’m grateful to have been born during his reign.”

We spoke under the watch of the portraits in the lamplight. “The king was completely selfless,” Mo said. “He was really a deity.” She added in English, “An angel.” Then, in Thai, “I’m grateful to have been born during his reign.” Mo grew up during the king’s most active years, the nineteen-seventies and eighties, when the Royal Projects—his policy initiatives, related primarily to agriculture and flood diversion—and media coverage thereof were at their peak. “I grew up seeing the king’s deeds on TV. I’ve always been used to it.”

Over the course of his seventy-year reign, the king, who died October 13 of lung and kidney complications, built up a formidable cult of personality. In the Thai public media network, he is commonly referred to as the “father of the land.” Portraits of him, like the one enshrined at Thai Taste, are omnipresent. In Bangkok alone, hundreds of thousands of people celebrated his birthday annually at Sanam Luang, a public square in front of the Grand Palace—Mo herself attended the celebration two years ago.

Growing up in Bangkok, where I lived before coming to Yale, I participated in this widespread adoration. The king wasn’t a tyrannical leader; nevertheless, his cult of personality rests on questionable grounds. The idea of his unequivocal goodness has been sustained through the suppression of uglier details, like his complicity in the massacre of university students in 1976.

Articles written in English—by BBC News, The New York Times, and The Economist, for instance—cite lèse-majesté laws, which criminalize insults to the monarchy, as the reason for the absence of visible opposition. However, this explanation is incomplete. A great number of Thai people feel genuine love for the king, and so revere the monarchy that to speak against it would be unthinkable—even in New Haven, far from punitive forces in Thailand. The five people I spoke to—staff at Thai and Thai-owned restaurants—all said that they loved the king and cried at the news of his death.

All five people I spoke with who work at Thai or Thai-owned New Haven restaurants said that they loved the king and cried at the news of his death.

Down the street from Thai Taste, pictures of the monarchy are also on display at Pad Thai. Nat, a waitress there, made Thai tea for her friend Ped, Pad Thai’s chef Mai, and me as we talked about life in America. “I live simply,” said Mai. “Just like our king said: sufficiency.” She was referring to the doctrine proposed by the king that advocates a life of moderation. The dentistry museum of Chulalongkorn University, Thailand’s oldest university, established by King Chulalongkorn, houses a tube of toothpaste, purportedly used by King Bhumibol, that has been squeezed completely flat—evidence of his modesty in spite of his wealth and power. He was considered a moral leader, unlike his son Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, who is thrice married and divorced, and is widely perceived as adulterous and hedonistic.

Mo has spent seven years in America; Mai, thirteen or fourteen. Trips home are expensive and rare. Even so, their statements of veneration sounded like those of Thais who had never left Thai soil.

This bond with Thailand isn’t sustained through a Thai community. “We’re here to work. It’s every man for themselves,” Mo told me. She plans to return to Thailand after retirement—New Haven merely provides a quiet space in which to make a living.

Instead, the bond is conserved technologically. Everyone I spoke to streams the same three Thai news channels. The Royal Thai Army manages one, and the state-owned public broadcaster manages the other two. All are conservative. Most of New Haven’s Thai residents don’t watch English-language news channels. They’re not interested, or don’t find Thailand, as they think of it, correctly represented.

Facebook and Line, a messaging app, are also central to keeping in touch with home. Both serve the double function of communication platform and news source. Paq, a waiter at Anaya Sushi, couldn’t tell me which online journals specifically served as his news sources: “I just saw it on Face.” This immersion in social media is accompanied by a comparatively sparse social life in New Haven. When I asked Paq what he does in his free time, he said, “I go home and sleep.” In the absence of a community in New Haven, Facebook provides a virtual replica of the social circles Thais inhabited back home.

Because Facebook is a global public network, it also extends the threat of repression all the way to New Haven. This past May, eight people were charged with sedition for mocking the military junta on Facebook, and the threat of repression now hangs, however lightly, over the site. “It’s not right to share such things,” said Mo, of a New York Times article about the king’s death in which the crown prince was spoken of unfavorably. She shook her head. “It’s too blunt.” It’s difficult to tell whether Mo’s criticism stems from the potential legal consequences or from a cultural norm of deference to the monarchy—the two reinforce each other even on this relatively new platform. Facebook makes Thailand immediate in every sense but the physical.

Some people, such as the initiator, are filled with patriotic furor: they sing vigorously, stridently. Some continue to weep.

This immediacy is palpable on the night of the memorial service. After a group picture is taken, a man rouses everyone to sing the King’s Anthem. Some people, such as the initiator, are filled with patriotic furor: they sing vigorously, stridently. Some continue to weep. Paq appreciates the solidarity the service provides. But Mo feels a little lost and disconnected. She pictures Sanam Luang on the king’s birthday two years ago, packed with people who looked upon each other with automatic love. In America, she says, the looks are blank, or guarded. In Thailand, the candles are real—not electric, like the ones at the Dwight Hall service or at Thai Taste’s shrine. The unity created by the king, she says, is real.

Was real. It was fragile enough while he was alive, she says. Thailand has undergone two military coups in the past decade; the 2014 coup was preceded by six months of protests. The crown prince is unpopular. What will come of it now?

“I can’t die here,” Mo said of America. Smiling, wry, “It’s too expensive.” She wants to return, and to be buried in Thai soil. Internally, she’s barely left. The Thai residents of New Haven are satellites—projected from Thailand, orbiting solitarily, carrying their particular notions of home, waiting to return.

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