By CHULARAT SAENGPASSA
Tens of thousands gathered to watch His Majesty’s final journey on Friday. Many left home before dawn and queued for hours after the Palace opened its doors to mourners.
Users of social media, Facebook in particular, constantly updated their profile photos and status, mostly to show deep respect and gratitude.
Amid these heartening episodes came international-media reports of some foreigners complaining their vacation in Thailand had been ruined by the 30-day ban on “overt entertainment” during the mourning period. Well, there’s no need to worry: Thailand has plenty of entertainment options beyond bars.
What is more surprising is the criticism being flung around between Thais. Much of it involves mourning dress.
A Polish tourist pictured wearing a black T-shirt and mingling with mourners at the Grand Palace was bombarded with praise from Thais for showing such respect.
Meanwhile, some Facebook users said people wearing colourful shirts were showing disrespect and a lack of love for their King.
Among Thailand’s more than 10 million Facebook users, more than 90 per cent live in cities. Here they never encounter rural folk who might not own black shirts and don’t have the money to buy them. In some families, shirts are dyed black when a loved one passes away, while children are allowed to wear what they have.
In an Instagram post, Paethongtarn Shinawatra, the youngest daughter of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, asked for understanding for people who could not afford black shirts. She also asked for understanding for those still uploading photos of restaurant meals to Facebook and for those who haven’t changed their profile photos to black and white, pointing out that people might betrying to avoid becoming depressed and that there were other ways to express loyalty. A comment supportive of this post came from HRH Princess Ubolratana Rajakanya, the King’s eldest daughter: “Agreed. Sometimes we need to ease misery or it would be unbearable.”
Several Facebook users also shared stories about poor elderly people who have difficulty acquiring black shirts.
Recognising the problem, the Finance Ministry and state-owned banks are preparing to spend Bt400 million on free handouts of black shirts for eight million registered low-income earners.
Celebrities and wealthier folks have also started handing out free black clothing for mourners.
It’s interesting to note here that Thais’ preference for black and white as mourning colours only became a norm under King Rama V, when Thailand embraced Western culture. In some parts of the country, a black ribbon alone suffices as a symbol of grief.
Indeed, people have different ways to mourn. Wearing black does not signify greater loyalty. The King left behind many valuable teachings, especially on harmony in Thai society. Displaying more understanding towards others in society is the first thing we can do to honour in memory.
We can also refocus our attention on people who are doing good deeds in the name of the King. People offering a free motorcycle service for mourners fighting traffic around the Grand Palace deserve praise, as do those who gave away free water and food boxes to the crowds.
Meanwhile there are thousands of teachers and doctors following in the King’s footsteps by improving the lives of people in under-developed rural areas.
There are farmers who are successfully embracing the His Majesty’s agricultural ideas.
There are people who volunteer their time or money to help others in need.
The King once said that any society where there was compassion and generosity would enjoy peace and happiness.
Thai people have enjoyed that condition for a long time, resulting in warmth and open-heartedness towards each other and towards foreign visitors. It is therefore no surprise that one foreign Facebook expressed surprise that some Thais are fighting over the wearing of black. That image is certainly not how we want people to remember Thailand and our King.