By Irene Stengs. Bangkok, Sunday May 5. With hundreds of others, I am queuing to enter the restricted area around the Grand Palace where the Royal Land Procession will start at 4 PM. In this seven-kilometer procession, Thailand’s new king Vajiralongkorn (Rama X), seated on the Royal Palanquin carried by sixteen royal guards, will halt at three royal temples to pay respect to the temples’ Buddha images. The procession is part of the three-days coronation ceremonies and offers ‘the people’ the opportunity to see their monarch in real life and to pay their respect.
The entrances are check points: before being allowed in, people must show their IDs by holding it next to their right ear, while looking upward into a camera in front of them. After passing through a metal scanner, bags are checked and cameras are registered. All in all, except for the latter, not much different from airport security procedures. The final step in the procedure is putting a sticker on people’s left chest showing a number: people are counted, their number approximately indicating the time of entering, the color indicating the entrance.
My research on the role of ritual in the transition from the ninth to the tenth reign – King Bhumibol (Rama IX) died over two years ago on 13 October 2016 – has brought me here. Although I am also looking forward to see the monarch on his royal palanquin with my own eyes, my primary interest concerns the color politics that accompany these royal rituals. Last time I was here, during the cremation ceremonies for Bhumibol (25-29 October 2017), anybody who wanted to enter the area had to be dressed in black, the color of mourning. Now, for the new king’s coronation, the color-code is yellow. Yellow is astrologically associated with Mondays, and thus ‘the color’ of those born on a Monday. As both Rama IX and Rama X were born on a Monday, yellow is Thailand’s most sacred color. In March, the government issued an ‘invitation for the Thai people to join in wearing yellow for four months in a row’, from April to July, to also cover the month of the king’s birthday on 28 July. The entire nation donning yellow would be the ultimate expression of the love all Thai are supposed to feel for their monarch. A first visual confirmation of this assumed unanimity would be provided on this auspicious afternoon with over two hundred thousand people attending, as the expectation goes. For the occasion, the government has provided free public transport, special trains and buses, to encourage as many people to join as possible.
The queue is absolutely unanimously yellow, with everybody enduring the blazing heat in good spirits. A short, but strong, squall evokes a cheerful collective sound of relief. After almost two hours I reach the security check, and the procedure seems very similar to me as that with Bhumibol’s cremation. However, after having my bag checked, the yellow collectivity abruptly fragments. Instead of joining my fellow queuers towards the exit to receive my sticker, I am taken to an extra checkpoint handled by the immigration police. Next to me stands a fragile Chinese woman, basically in tears. Her ID card is not valid. She doesn’t speak Thai or English, but via the translation program on her phone she tells me that she is a refugee who fled China because she is a Christian. I wonder what made her take the risk to join the event without proper documents. Bangkok has many refugees and undocumented migrants. Nobody pays attention to them, until, for one reason or the other, they are caught. Then, they have to pay the equivalent 30 to 60 euros to pay off a corrupt police officer, or, worse, may disappear into prison. The officer-on-duty calls in a higher official to deal with our cases: we will be interviewed.
My documents are valid, but I know what the problem is: I signed a petition in support of five Thai academics who were accused of organizing a political gathering (which they didn’t) on the International Thai Studies Conference in 2017, gatherings which are forbidden since the 2014 coup d’état. Everybody who has signed has, when entering or leaving the country, to take extra time into account as the immigration police will let one wait in an office, without explaining why: a very mild form of intimidation in comparison with the forms of repression many Thai with unwanted political views have to endure from this dictatorial regime. So, I reckon that this again is why I am waiting here, although I also feel a bit nervous. My passport passes from hand to hand among the lower officials of the immigration police. Instead of their usual uniforms they wear the official yellow polo shirt with royal emblem. They also have the ‘new’ military haircut, a directive issued by the new king two years ago. The haircut is also obligatory for all men working for the palace. While keeping track of my passport, I try to have some comforting exchanges with the woman. Via the translation program on her mobile phone she tries to communicate to the guy in charge of us that Thailand is not complying with UNHCR regulations. I suggest her not do that to avoid making him angry. All of a sudden, after one-and-a-half-hour of waiting, I can go: it was a ‘computer mistake’. The Chinese woman has to stay. Below the yellow surface everyday politics rule.
Irene Stengs is senior researcher at the Meertens Institute and Professor by special appointment in the Anthropology of Ritual and Popular Culture at the Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology of the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam.