Thailand's king, world's longest-reigning monarch, dies

Friday, October 14, 2016
A Thai woman weeps as she holds on to a portrait of Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej in a line to offer condolences for the king today at Grand Palace in Bangkok. Grieving Thais went to work dressed mostly in black this morning, just hours after the palace announced the death of their beloved King Bhumibol, the politically fractious country's unifying figure and the world's longest-reigning monarch.
Gemunu Amarasinghe ~ Associated Press

BANGKOK -- King Bhumibol Adulyadej, revered in Thailand as a demigod, a humble father figure and an anchor of stability through decades of upheaval at home and abroad, died Thursday. He was 88 and had been the world's longest-reigning monarch.

The Royal Palace said Bhumibol died "in a peaceful state" at Siriraj Hospital in Bangkok, where he had been treated for various health problems for most of the past decade.

During a reign that spanned 70 years, Bhumibol became much more than Thailand's constitutional monarch. He was the nation's one constant as governments rose and fell, a gentle leader who used his influence to unify the nation and rally troops through the Cold War as Thailand's neighbors fell under communist control.

In his heyday, the frail-looking, soft-spoken man in spectacles wielded so much power and respect, he was able to squelch coups and rebellions with a gesture or a few well-chosen words.

Bhumibol was viewed by many in the majority Buddhist nation as a bodhisattva, or holy being who delays entering nirvana to aid the human race. But while junta leaders, prime ministers and courtiers approached him only on their knees, Bhumibol was remarkably down-to-earth. He hiked into impoverished villages and remote rice paddies to assess the state of his country. He played a half-dozen musical instruments and jammed with American jazz greats including Benny Goodman.

Thailand's King Bhumibol Adulyadej speaks from the balcony at the Anantha Samakhom Throne Hall on Dec. 5, 2012, in Bangkok during his 85th birthday celebration.
Sakchai Lalit ~ Associated Press file

Bhumibol was the world's richest monarch and one of the planet's wealthiest people: Forbes magazine estimated his fortune at more than $30 billion in 2011.

In the last decade, Bhumibol withdrew from public life because of illness and often was ensconced at Siriraj Hospital. His wife, Queen Sirikit, also has been ailing and has been seen even more rarely.

Hundreds of weeping mourners stood outside the hospital Thursday, chanting prayers and looking up at the building.

Since army-staged coups in 2006 and 2014, political rivals increasingly had invoked the need to protect the palace as a pretext to gain or hold power, and some politicians have been sidelined by opponents who accused them of disrespecting the king, a grave crime in this Southeast Asian country.

Although Bhumibol once said he is not above criticism, Thailand's lese majeste law -- the world's harshest -- has been employed routinely in recent years, with anyone charged with defaming the palace facing 15 years in jail.

Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha said Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn will become the new monarch, in accordance with the constitution. He said the government will notify the National Legislative Assembly, or parliament, of the succession.

Prayuth told reporters he had an audience with the prince, hours after Bhumibol's death, and Vajiralongkorn had asked for a delay in proclaiming him king so he could "take some time to mourn, together with the people of Thailand."

With the king's passing, the world's longest reigning monarch is Queen Elizabeth II, who ascended to the British throne in 1952.

Bhumibol Adulyadej was born Dec. 5, 1927, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, while his father, Prince Mahidol of Songkhla, was studying medicine at Harvard University.

Thailand has been a constitutional monarchy since 1932, with the prime minister and parliament holding political power and the king serving as head of state and placed in "a position of revered worship."

Bhumibol ascended to the throne in 1946, when his brother, 20-year-old King Ananda Mahidol, was found dead of a gunshot wound to the head in a palace bedroom under circumstances that remain mysterious.

After the shooting, Bhumibol returned to school in Switzerland. In 1948, he was seriously injured in a road accident that left him blind in his right eye; Sirikit Kitiyakara, the daughter of a Thai aristocrat and diplomat, helped nurse him back to health. Bhumibol and Sirikit wed in 1950, a week before the coronation.

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