Chambers described the king as a “socio-cultural stabilizer” despite the numerous coups that took place during his reign. Beginning in 1980, no coup could succeed without the king’s endorsement, he added. Famously, in 1992 he used his status to end a deadly crackdown on peaceful protests and pave the way for the then-prime minister Suchinda Kraprayoon’s resignation. In The King Never Smiles, an unauthorized biography of the ruler, Paul Handley writes that the last-minute intervention in 1992 was carried out with “masterly aplomb.” Bhumibol’s “words and actions were adored by the people while divisions among politicians and military men were muffled to appease him,” Chambers said.
More inconvenient elements of the story, such as the fact that dozens of people had already been killed and the leader of the crackdown, Suchinda, had himself seized power the year before, have been glossed over in official memory. A video of the intervention, however, shows the leaders of the two sides on their knees before the king as he scolds them. For years, the scene “was regularly reproduced on television, in movie theaters, and in books as a reminder to 60 million Thais that the sole source of the kingdom’s harmony and democratic spirit is the Chakri throne,” Handley wrote.
In recent days, the sense of devotion to the king’s legacy has been apparent, even in the least likely places. Inside Siam Paragon, one of the largest malls in Bangkok, commerce carried on as usual, but with a few major changes. Designer clothing stores have put black outfits on manikins while turning off or softening music in the stores. Pirasuth Muenniam, the area and operations manager for Siam Paragon’s Dolce & Gabbana outlet, said the changes went into effect on the evening of October 13, soon after the announcement of the king’s death. That night, he texted and called his boss. Alterations were made. “Right away, we changed something that evening, whatever we could,” he said at the store on Wednesday. “I mean it happened very fast. We took action.” While nothing could be done about the store’s velvet-colored furniture, the expensive dresses swapped into the display were all dark in tone.
Though the mourning period runs for a year, it’s unclear how long the dress code will be embraced by Thais; Pirasuth speculated several months, at least. “It’s going to be quite some time before we get over it,” he said.
Most shoppers went to more affordable stores like Uniqlo, which was teeming with customers the same afternoon this week that I visited the Dolce & Gabbana manager. After the king died and the mourning period began, retiree Kittiya Amatayakul went to look in her wardrobe. She had some acceptable clothing though the quality wasn’t quite sufficient. “I’m here to buy more,” she said, holding up a pair of black pants.