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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 October 2018

Thai King Bhumibol, world’s longest-reigning monarch, dies

Thailand’s King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who was the world’s longest-reigning monarch, died in hospital on Thursday, the palace said in an announcement.
King Bhumibol Adulyadej was the world’s longest-reigning monarch. Vivani Dithajohn / EPA / File pic 2004
King Bhumibol Adulyadej was the world’s longest-reigning monarch. Vivani Dithajohn / EPA / File pic 2004

BANGKOK // For seven decades, King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand presided over a country riven by political turbulence. His death on Thursday at the age of 88 closes a very long chapter in the history of modern Thailand.

His death was not a surprise. The king had been mostly confined to bed for more than a year. But his death was a shock. No monarch in the modern era had reigned longer than King Bhumibol and the vast majority of Thais have known no other head of state.

On Sunday, the palace said the king’s condition had become unstable. Thais donned pink clothes – the colour associated with good health – and gathered outside the hospital to pray for the king. When the news of his death broke, many broke down into wailing and sobbing. More crowds gathered at the Erawan shrine, scene of Bangkok’s worst terrorism bombing in August 2015, to light candles and joss sticks.

“This is such a sad day for Thailand,” said Sanom Suringpong, 35, a businesswoman. “He was a father figure and we don’t know what will happen next to our country.”

Burim Saransang, 41, an office worker, said, “ We have never known any other monarch. Now he’s gone, it seems unreal. Nobody knows what to expect in the future. For now, we can only mourn.”

Another young man simply wailed in distress, “How will Thailand live without you, father?”

A statement from the royal household said the king had “ passed away peacefully” at 3.52pm local time (12.52pm UAE time) at Siriraj Hospital in Bangkok. Shortly afterwards, prime minister Prayut Chan-ocha appeared on television. He said the king’s passing was “the most devastating moment for Thais” since the death of his predecessor and older brother Ananda in 1946, and confirmed that Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn was the new sovereign.

King Bhumibol: The personality cult surrounding Thailand’s ‘father of the nation’

As well as king, Bhumibol was regarded as “father of the nation” – not only by virtue of his longevity but because he rebuilt the monarchy from near extinction into one of the wealthiest and most powerful in the world. Although Thailand’s absolute monarchy was abolished in 1932, Bhumibol and a well-oiled propaganda machine nurtured a cult of personality. He was literally revered. Defaming, insulting or criticising members of the royal family is a crime in Thailand, punishable by up to 15 years imprisonment for each offence.

Bhumibol was born not in the country he ruled but in Cambridge, Massachusetts – where his father was studying public health at Harvard – on December 5, 1927. His parents had to consult his uncle, King Rama VII, before choosing his name, which means “strength of the land, incomparable power”.

His father died when he was only two and his mother took Bhumibol and his older brother and sister to Switzerland. When the childless King Rama VII abdicated in 1935, Bhumibol’s older brother Ananda succeeded him as King Rama VIII. When Ananda died of gunshot wounds in 1946 in circumstances that remain unclear, Bhumibol succeeded him as King Rama IX. He was just 18.

At his coronation he pledged to “reign with righteousness”. He began his reign as a mostly ceremonial figure under a government dominated by the military. By the end he had survived more than dozen coups and become a symbol of stability and moral authority. Thais are taught about Bhumibol’s good works at school, cinema-goers have to stand for the royal anthem at the start of films and portraits of the king and his wife, Queen Sirikit, adorn most Thai homes.

He also forged a strong bond with the military.

“He viewed it as a partnership for developing the country,” said Paul Handley, author of the unauthorised biography The King Never Smiles, which is banned in Thailand.

After being moved on Friday to the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, next to the Grand Palace, the king’s body will lie in state for 100 days before the funeral rites. All festivities are banned for 30 days and the government declared a year of mourning. Thailand’s national assembly met for a special session on Thursday evening but did not officially nominate a new monarch, prompting some confusion about the smoothness of the succession process. But the prime minister said Prince Vajiralongkorn had simply asked for time to grieve with the Thai people.

“Let us wait for the right time,” said Mr Prayut.

foreign.desk@thenational.ae