King Bhumibol Adulyadej passed away on 13 October 2016. For the foreign traveller in Thailand, it will be important to understand the role of the monarchy in Thai society, both in terms of law and culture. This brief sketches the basic legal and cultural geography that visitors to Thailand will need to understand at this time.
Thailand has some of the strictest lese mejeste laws on the planet. It is against the law to defame the king, the queen, or their heir apparent, and it is unwise to criticise any other members of the royal family. Defamation is not explicitly defined, and so its interpretation can alter to suit the mood of the times. Prosecutions under this law have increased since the military took over in the 2014 coup.
The law is strictly enforced, so much so that news media will often not report on lese majeste cases lest they be guilty of perpetuating the offence. Third-party websites are often held accountable for lese majeste violations committed by their users. YouTube, for example, was blocked repeatedly in 2006 and 2007 due to videos that were alleged to violate the law. Currently, mobile telecom service providers in Thailand are urging customers to report "inappropriate content" on sites such as Facebook, YouTube and others.
Aside from being a strictly-enforced point of law, reverence for the monarchy is a deeply-held cultural value in Thailand. The late king is particularly beloved and any criticisms can potentially have serious social consequences, independent of legal liability. Possible repercussions could vary greatly depending on the circumstances, and travellers should understand that one ill-advised comment might be sufficient to permanently damage business relationships.
Because of the extreme sensitivity of this issue and the strict laws surrounding it, the best rule in general is to not discuss the monarchy. During the 30-day period of mourning, and in the months to follow, that might be impossible. If so, find positive and respectful things to say. Under no circumstances should a negative or critical remark be made, no matter how balanced or tempered.
A number of ceremonies will now take place, eventually culminating in the king's cremation. That event is planned for a year from now, and the process is a long one. During this period, royal pageantry will be lavish in the extreme, and richly layered in art, symbolism and meaning. Instead of discussions about the monarchy, steer conversations towards traditional culture as this is a neutral topic that will not offend, nor will it risk violations of lese majeste. Thoughtful questions will be appreciated, because they show a respect for the culture. Some symbolism may be beyond the knowledge of many Thai people, so take care not to cause embarrassment. Questions couched in terms of, "where could I learn more about . . ." will enable a Thai person to save face.
In the short term, political upheaval in Thailand is unlikely. A steady, stable monarchy is in the interest of everyone in Thailand and the time for political jockeying will come later. The mourning period will dominate short-term events, and many of those events can be best understood through the lens of traditional Thai culture.