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Royal farewell: Thai community at UH mourns king

Thais in Houston, much like those back in Thailand, lost a parent last Thursday.

King Bhumibol Adulyadej died at 3:52 p.m local time on Oct. 13 at Siriraj Hospital in Bangkok, which is also where he had been going through different treatments for various illnesses since Oct. 3, 2014. He was 88.

“I cried so much I couldn’t breathe, until there was no noise,” said Chatwara Duran, an assistant professor of applied linguistics at UH. “Some people might say he’s like a father, but he’s also my hope. He is Thailand’s hope.”

‘He’s my family’

Rama IX, the U.S.-born king, was a revered figure in his 70-year reign, the world’s longest. Before every movie, attendees must stand for the royal anthem. Billboards of him decorate streets and roundabouts. In almost every business, school, car and residence hangs a portrait of him.

Duran brought his portrait with her when attending King Bhumibol’s funeral hosted by Wat Buddhavas, a Buddhist temple on Spindle Drive, on Sunday.

“What portrait do you keep in your house? Someone you love, someone in your family, right?” Duran said through tears. “For me, he’s my family.”

At a young age, Duran knew about the king through televised clips of him doing good deeds and visiting remote areas. She noticed that the king, despite the god-like perception many would adopt, had a “kind, soft and gentle” manner of speech — in Thai, English or French.

Duran also said that there are photos and video clips of him bowing and sitting on the ground to converse with monks or elderlies.

Logistics and supply chain management graduate Suddan Narathipat, the president of the Thai Student Association at UH, is from Narathiwat, one of many rural towns that the king would visit annually to assess the people’s living conditions. Since 5 or 6 years old, Narathipat made it a ritual to go out and line up the streets with other people to meet the king.

“Just a second, every single year,” Narathipat said. “I don’t know how to explain it, but it made me proud of being Thai.”

Narathipat, at first, didn’t want to believe that King Bhumibol has gone. He was about to go to work when he read the news on Facebook.

Thai’s English-language daily Bangkok Post reported that the country will enter a yearlong mourning period. The Tourism Authority of Thailand notified, among other things, a toning-down of entertaining events and personal conduct.

Even the famous red-light district in Bangkok cloaked itself in darkness.

The people’s king

Among the attendees to the king’s funeral at the temple was Nutt Narawit, a two-and-a-half year TSA member who is finishing his internship at Texas Chiropractic College. He would be one of the earliest people to know about King Bhumibol’s passing, coming across the news at 3 a.m. while assisting his expectant wife, Suphararittha Srivichai.

Like Narathipat, Narawit also had a close encounter with the king at a young age. He was standing in the front of the crowd with his parents and sister, holding a white flower in his hand.

“(The king) actually greeted me and he said, ‘Son, how old are you? Where is your home?’” Narawit said, his voice cracked slightly. “I said, ‘I’m 6 years old and my home is around the block.’ Then he said, ‘Take care of your sister.’”

Narawit and Narathipat are from the same town. They didn’t know that until they met in TSA.

Cultural anthropology graduate Natchaya Wanissorn was at the funeral with her husband. She contacted her mom and friends, who were also crying. She doesn’t have a picture of King Bhumibol, as she wasn’t sure then that she would settle down in the U.S.

“I feel like he’s just in my blood,” Wanissorn said. “Now I really want a picture of him in my home. It’s time.”

A portrait will be the first thing Wanissorn get when she returns to Thailand in December.

The successor

Per tradition, Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, 64, will step up as head-of-state. The process won’t be immediate, however, as officials said King Bhumibol’s only son had requested for more time to mourn.

For now, Prem Tinsulanoda, 96, Thailand’s former prime minister and head of the king’s advisory council, is king regent. Duran, Narathipat and Wanissorn offered short answers on the crown prince, but the trio agreed that the crown prince will be a fine successor.

Sirikit Kitiyakara, whom the king met in France when he was 21, is now the queen dowager of Thailand.

Thailand has one of the strictest “lese majeste” laws in the world. Any person can be jailed from three to 15 years for negative opinions or actions against the royal family in any form.

Over lunch offered by the funeral attendees, Narathipat used his tablet to show an assortment of Facebook photos featuring the king walking in the countryside with a map and camera, in his royal attire and — in black and white — scores of Thais grieving on the streets.

Narathipat expressed deep respect for the king, whom he said had ensured Thailand’s prosperity with just one eye. Since the accident where the Fiat 500 he was driving crashed into a truck on Oct. 4, 1948 near Lausanne, Switzerland, the king wore an ocular prosthetic.

“A prime minister might come and go,” Duran said. “For (the king), he’s been there. The only one.”

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