Mourning the King With Respect to Our Diversity

A picture of the late King from a TV program broadcast on all Thai TV stations on Friday.


Millions are mourning the passing of His Majesty the King, Bhumibol Adulyadej. As we transition into a new era, let’s recall mourning is about love and empathy as much as it is grief. It should not be about intolerance, coercion and excess.

The military regime of Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha wisely backtracked from its plan that all television channels broadcast nonstop state media eulogizing the late King for 30 days.

The original plan was tantamount to patronizingly force feeding the public for a month. Fortunately, the junta came to its senses quickly on this matter.

After meeting Friday, one day after the death of His Majesty, military government spokesman Lt. Gen. Sansern Kaewkamnerd told me on the phone that the non-stop, centralized broadcasting of state-provided content on all private channels would effectively end this morning – with some caveats: no entertainment programs for 30 days and occasional royal funerary ceremonies.

This makes more sense. Even without the state forcing its programming on television operators, they will report on the various aspects of a nation in mourning for the coming year of mourning as declared by the regime.

The consequences would have been acute.

The original plan to force centralized programs for 30 days would have adversely affected advertising revenues for virtually all stations, except perhaps Thai PBS, which is deeply dependent on advertising and sponsorship revenues. News editorial staff would also have nothing to do for a month.

What’s more, Thai society would have been deprived of diverse coverage of this once-in-a-lifetime event. This morning, I saw different TV channels covering different aspects of the public mourning, which was much more enriching than just one view imposed on all channels.

Please note that there can be no critical assessment of the life of His Majesty, the late King, due to the draconian lese majeste law, which punishes criticism — and increasingly any discussion — of the monarchy by a maximum of 15 years in prison.

Pravit Rojanaphruk

Though the Thai media, myself included, have been censored and have self-censored out of reverence or fear, it is still better to have outlets decide their own approaches to the unfolding story under the limit of the law than the junta spoon-feeding us for 30 days.

This was apparent today when a few channels began interviewing people in different parts of Thailand, showing the tapestry of a nation in mourning instead of uniform programs from the military regime.

It’s not just the regime which tends to excesses. Ultra-royalists think they are the culture police. Over the past two days they have pressured BBC Thai to change its logo from red to black, like most domestic outlets.

The problem is that although BCC Thai operates in Thai, it’s not a Thai organization but part of the sprawling London-based British Broadcasting Corp. Last night BBC Thai defended its decision, saying it’s a matter of company policy.

“There shall be no change of symbols of the organization following changes in global affairs …,” the statement read. “At the same time, BBC Thai is presenting news at this sensitive time with care, while taking into consideration the various legal constraints.”

While the BBC is a giant that can withstand this vigilante pressure, it may be another thing for the nation’s struggling singers, dancers or sex workers.

The military regime has ordered all public “entertainment” be muted for one month.    

Low-paid workers in the entertainment and commercial sex industries, many of who live check-to-check, will be heavily affected. Can the government compensate them or find a better way to handle mourning, so these people do not need to suffer unnecessarily while the nation is in mourning?

Nick Day, a Bangkok-based expat and former magazine editor, tweeted to me this morning about a professional singer friend who “will have no income for a whole month.”

Like love, mourning and grief cannot be forced. As millions of Thais mourn the loss of their beloved monarch, let us be sure there is civilized breathing space for those who may think or feel differently and ensure no one suffers unnecessarily from the imposition of mourning-related strictures.

There are millions genuinely mourning. Many wear black out of genuine love and reverence for the late King, while there are those who do it because of peer pressure, workplace mandate or their role in the bureaucracy. In this time of mourning, let us remember Thailand is a pluralistic, not a monolithic society.

As we move into a new era, let’s hope it will be more tolerant of our diversity, and not less.