Thai Royal Funeral and Ongoing Security Risks – Travel Advisory
20 Oct 2017
King Bhumibol of Thailand died on 13 October 2016, and the country has been in a protracted state of official mourning since. This period is intended to be brought to an end with a five day state funeral ceremony from 25 to 29 October, focused on the deceased King’s cremation on 26 October 2017.
- The year-long mourning period will end with a five day funeral ceremony.
- Road and landmark closures are planned throughout Bangkok.
- The funeral marks the end of Thailand’s political hiatus, political and civil instability is probable through 2018.
Political: King Bhumibol of Thailand died on 13 October 2016, and the country has been in a protracted state of official mourning since. This period is intended to be brought to an end with a five day state funeral ceremony from 25 to 29 October, focused on the deceased King’s cremation on 26 October 2017.
Extensive river and road closures have been announced throughout Bangkok, centering on the purpose-built crematorium in the Ancient Quarter. These, in conjunction with the deployment of 70,000 troops to the city, are intended to provide safety and security to the celebrations which are projected to attracted at least 250,000 mourners per day, in addition to the city’s normal population.
Only 26 October has been designated a national holiday, although services will be impeded across the country for the duration of the funeral event.
The date of the coronation of Bhumibol’s successor, Vajiralongkorn, has not been confirmed, but is expected before the end of 2017.
Solace global comment
Importance of the Monarchy in Thailand
The institution of the monarchy is highly revered in Thailand, often sincerely credited with being the pillar of stability in an otherwise politically volatile nation. This has stemmed from a number of incidents throughout Bhumibol’s reign; particularly the manner in which Thailand avoided the regional wars and genocides which swept neighbouring states during the Cold War; and is maintained by strictly enforced lese-majeste laws. These laws have successfully destroyed any effective public criticism of the monarchy and have also been used arbitrarily to defend the ruling military junta from effective domestic scrutiny. Public acceptance for these laws stems principally from a genuine attachment to King Bhumibol, it is unclear that this this goodwill can transfer directly to Vajiralongkorn.
The government, due to a simultaneous need to allow the population to mourn, and a desire to further entrench the monarchy’s status; have established 85 smaller funeral ceremonies across the country. Each of these is a small-scale replica of the events to be held in Bangkok, and are highly likely to prove popular in their respective regions. As such, whilst the government has only announced one national holiday, 26 October, travellers should expect mass closures to businesses for the full period of the funeral from 25 to 29 October. Businesses which remain open are also highly likely to suffer extensive absenteeism, and services will be correspondingly reduced.
Thailand has an ongoing Malay separatist insurgency in the south of the country; groups affiliated with this have recently carried out small bomb attacks targeting densely populated areas, seeking to inflict casualties amongst local civilians and travellers. It is probable that such groups will seek to conduct attacks against the funeral events. The Bangkok event is intended to be the centre of a massive military and police security operation, however it is unlikely that regional events will be secured to a comparable level. As such, there is a realistic probability that insurgents will seek to target and disrupt regional and local events in the south of the country.
King Bhumibol’s rule persisted despite political instability due to the establishment of a carefully balanced networked power base between the monarchy, the military, and key civil leaders. This effectively tied the main power-brokers together, mitigating much of the potential for infighting, and maintained something akin to continuity through the regular collapses and coups which struck the democratically elected Thai governments. Present indicators, including some actions which may indicate a power-grab, suggest that Vajiralongkorn is not fully integrated into this network, likely lacking the in-depth personal relationships required to depend on the loyalty of individually powerful subordinates. If he continues to make similar moves in the short-to-midterm, fractures are likely to appear within and between the ruling political classes and may trigger further escalation of political unrest and, ultimately, violence.
Civil Unrest Threat
The funeral ceremonies themselves offer little scope for civil unrest due, in part, to the extensive security presence being implemented around Bangkok. It is more likely that any unrest will coincide with potential political tensions in the aftermath of the funeral. Additionally, the Thai prime minister announced that a general election will occur in November 2018, with the date to be confirmed in June. The elections had initially been delayed due to the formal year of mourning and the temporary cessation of political activity following King Bhumibol’s death. The lead-up, to both the announcement of the elections, and the elections themselves, are likely to cause some level of civil unrest, although the severity of this may vary substantially depending on the actions of King Vajiralongkorn and the military Junta as outlined above.
Impact on Travellers
In the short term, over the immediate course of the funeral, travellers are highly likely to experience substantial disruptions to travel and the provision of services across the country. Bangkok, in particular, is likely to be hosting a population far higher than normal, due to it being the host city for the main funeral event. The heightened level of security is also likely to act as a further impediment to free movement around the city, minor transgressions are also more likely to be treated as a significant offence. Travellers and businesses with a more established presence in Thailand can expect administrative uncertainty and disruption to persist over the next 12 months as the civil and political establishments react to the new status quo and the impending elections. It is probable that this uncertainty will manifest itself as civil unrest, particularly in major urban areas, in response to major events, such as the announcement of the election dates, or perceived clashes between elite groups.
With the exception of the official events in the south of the country, there is no substantial physical risk to travellers during this period, however disruption will be protracted and widespread. Travellers seeking to conduct business or operational tasks within Thailand are advised to plan to avoid the dates of the funeral events. Those who do choose to visit Thailand during the event should maintain a high standard of situational awareness at all times, such large scale events typically attract petty criminals who prey on the crowds. Foreign travellers are also advised to familiarise themselves thoroughly with Thailandâs lese-majeste laws, and ensure they do not impact Thai sensibilities during this sensitive period. Actions in breach of these laws may be punished harshly by the countryâs courts, regardless of the suspectâs nationality.
It is recommended that any protests which occur during or after the funeral are avoided. It is highly likely that police and soldiers will use forceful measures against demonstrators due to the potential for escalating instability in this period. Political gatherings may initially seem peaceful but can escalate quickly into violence. It would be advisable for travellers to maintain a low profile in the short-term and monitor local events. Signifiers of further or extensive unrest over the next 12 months are likely to be an atypical increase in arrests and prosecutions under the lese-majeste laws, potentially including senior officials. Further political and civil disruption, or violent unrest, may follow such cases with little warning.
Solace Global would advise clients to employ security measures when visiting Thailand â airport meet and greet and a security driver for the length of a visit, particularly during the funeral period, would act to mitigate the majority of risks. Travel tracking, supported by a live intelligence feed, will serve as an added measure to inform travellers of further developments throughout the country.
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