Last year, His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the ninth monarch of the Thai Chakri dynasty, passed away. In accordance with Thai royal custom, a year-long period of mourning took place, with the royal cremation ceremony taking place after the mourning period, to be held in October 2017.
As a beloved monarch who had earned the respect of heads of state throughout the world, many countries paid respect to the late King throughout the mourning period. The royal cremation ceremony is perhaps the most symbolic and most important, and the five-day funeral will be attended by heads of state from the world over, including King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck of Bhutan, and Japan’s Prince Akishino and Princess Kiko.
It is a somber time for Thai people throughout the world, and thousands of people from throughout the country have converged at the Grand Palace in Bangkok to pay their respects.
As a matter of protocol, heads of state will attend, send an envoy, or at least send a message of condolence. Although the President of the United States himself often does not attend state funerals, it is customary to send either the Vice President or the Secretary of State, along with the senior diplomat.
President Trump instead sent the Secretary of Defense, General Jim “Mad Dog” Mattis.
Mattis, who is taking part in the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) defense ministerial talks in the Philippines, was called on by the President to attend – presumably because he happened to be in the neighborhood, and President Trump simply didn’t think it through. Did he just think, “Hey, Mad Dog’s in the neighborhood already, I’ll just sent him over”?
Nothing against Mad Dog, but he just isn’t the right man for the job, and it is a sign of disrespect – whether it was intentional or not – to send the Secretary of Defense to attend such an important event. Vice President Pence, or Secretary of State Tillerson should have been tapped to go to Thailand instead.
Tillerson did visit as the late King was lying in state in the Grand Palace’s Dusit Maha Prasat Throne Hall during the one-year mourning period. Is it possible that Trump didn’t realize (and couldn’t be bothered to ask about Thai royal customs) that a second visit by a ranking member of the administration is in order? If he would have taken the time to consult his Chief of Protocol, he would have understood better what a royal funeral ceremony involves, and that a full year of mourning takes place, during which the late King lies in state, and at the culmination of that period, the royal funeral and cremation takes place.
But there is a reason President Trump did not consult his Chief of Protocol – an officer who advises the President on matters of international diplomacy, customs and practices. There is nobody occupying that office. Trump vacated the position in January 2017.
The Chief of Protocol is well-versed in foreign relations and etiquette, and advises presidents on foreign customs – and perhaps, by the way, could have advised Trump on modifying his well-known painful used-car-salesman handshakes as well. But understanding these things seems to be a low priority in this administration, and the resulting PR nightmares will continue to play out.