The coronation of 66-year-old King Maha Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun kicked off on Saturday, more than two years after he ascended the throne following the death of his father King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who was widely beloved and revered.
King Vajiralongkorn received a white, nine-tier umbrella as part of an hours-long ceremony, which marked the moment he became a fully-fledged King. Only a consecrated king is allowed to sit on a throne under the umbrella, which represents the King’s connection with heaven.
The King wore a 7.3 kilogram (16 lb) crown and was bathed with holy water during parts of the ceremony, which featured incense, yellow flowers and auspicious oils.
He also delivered his first royal command as King, saying, “I shall continue, preserve, and build upon the royal legacy and shall reign with righteousness for the benefit and happiness of the people forever.”
For the majority of Thai people, this weekend’s coronation of the 10th Thai King will be the first they have witnessed. The late King Bhumibol was crowned on May 5, 1950. Small crowds braved the oppressive heat, wearing hats and sheltering in the shade as they watched the coronation unfold on large screens around the Grand Palace.
“In many ways (the coronation) begins a new chapter in Thai history,” said Paul Chambers, from the College of ASEAN Community Studies at Thailand’s Naresuan University. “It legitimizes him, and it commences the reign formally.”
Although Thailand’s monarchy hasn’t held absolute power in 86 years, it remains an influential part of Thai life. Pictures of the royals are widely displayed around Thailand and the country’s strict lese majeste laws make it illegal to defame, insult or threaten the king, queen, heir-apparent or regent.
The coronation comes amid an ongoing period of political instability in the country, which has had two coups in 13 years. In March, Thailand held a national election but its results remain unclear, with both major political parties claiming they are able to form a government.
“The coronation can be seen as an event that would distract Thai people from the current political problems,” Chambers said. “People are very curious – they haven’t seen a coronation.”
A multi-million dollar celebration
King Vajiralongkorn has already been presented with a gold 7.3-kilogram crown and undergone a royal purification ceremony using sacred water which was gathered from Thailand’s 76 provinces, according to the Thai Government’s public relations department.
From his ornate gold throne, the King granted an audience to key Thai leaders, including members of the Royal Family, the Privy Council, and the Cabinet, as well as other senior officials.
The three-day coronation will also involve a public audience and the King circling parts of the city on a royal palanquin.
Authorities confirmed to CNN that one billion Thai baht ($31 million) was set aside for the coronation, about one third of the cost of the late King’s funeral in 2017.
Although King Vajiralongkorn has already ruled for over two years, the coronation ceremony solidifies his role as a fully-fledged monarch. The almost three-year gap between the late King’s death in October 2016 and the new King’s coronation isn’t unusual, said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a Thai political scientist at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok. King Vajiralongkorn needed time to grieve his father and prepare for the event, he added. The late King Bhumibol reigned for four years before his coronation.
“The official enthronement will solidify kingship and enhance his aura as the new king,” said Thitinan.
In the capital Bangkok, shops are selling portraits of the King as a young man and T-shirts in yellow – the color associated with the monarchy – emblazoned with the words: “Long live the King.” The average price for the shirts is 100 to 200 Thai baht – around $3 to $6. In Thai belief, each day of the week is assigned a color and both the current and late King were born on a Monday, which is associated with yellow.
In some ways, Thitinan said the celebrations are likely to be relatively “modest” compared with those for the late King’s 60th anniversary in 2006, when the Sultan of Brunei, the Emperor of Japan, and Queen Elizabeth’s son Prince Andrew traveled to Bangkok for the occasion.
This time, no foreign dignitaries have been invited.
Who is King Vajiralongkorn?
King Vajiralongkorn studied in Australia and the United Kingdom and has fathered two daughters and five sons.
On Wednesday, days before the coronation began, the King announced he had married his fourth wife, General Suthida Vajiralongkorn Na Ayudhya.
Since he became King, billions of dollars worth of assets held by the Thai Crown have been transferred to him, vastly increasing his personal wealth.
Earlier this year, King Vajiralongkorn spoke out about the importance of the royal family staying “above politics” after his 67-year-old sister Princess Ubolratana Rajakanya announced she would stand as the prime ministerial candidate for the Thai Raksa Chart Party (Thai Save The Nation, or TSN).
The party was aligned with populist former leader Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted by the military in a 2006 coup.
King Vajiralongkorn called the move “extremely inappropriate.” In March, the country’s Constitutional Court dissolved TSN and ruled that nominating the princess was “hostile to the monarchy institution.”
A tough act to follow
King Vajiralongkorn’s father Bhumibol reigned for 70 years, making him the world’s longest reigning monarch at the time of his death.
He was seen as a unifying force in the country, and became immensely popular as he worked hard and dedicated himself to Thai people, Thitinan said.
When he died, Thailand had a year-long mourning period for the late King, who is also known as King Rama IX. During his elaborate funeral ceremony in 2017, a sea of mourners clad in black lined the streets.
But the twilight years of his reign were marred by political conflict – the military coups of 2006 and 2014. Since then, the military junta has passed two constitutions shoring up its power and weakening its rivals.
“The new king inherits this protracted conflict and polarization,” Thitinan said. “He’s not as popular as his father, but he has an opportunity to build popularity.”
CNN’s Kocha Olarn, Paul Devitt and Karla Cripps in Bangkok and Mohammed Elshamy in Atlanta contributed to this report.