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

FILE: Thailand's King Bhumibol Adulyadej is pushed on a wheelchair while leaving Siriraj hospital for the Grand Palace in Bangkok (Apichart Weerawong, File)

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 on 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.
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During a reign that spanned 70 years Bhumibol became much more than Thailand's constitutional monarch. He was the nation's one constant as myriad governments rose and fell, a gentle leader who used the influence of the throne 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 rolled up his sleeves and hiked into impoverished villages and remote rice paddies to assess the state of his country. He played half a dozen musical instruments and jammed with American jazz greats including Benny Goodman.

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.

Over the last decade, Bhumibol had withdrawn from public life due to illness and was often ensconced at Siriraj Hospital. His wife, Queen Sirikit, has also long been ailing and has been even more rarely seen.

Since army-staged coups in 2006 and 2014, political rivals had increasingly 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 routinely employed in recent years, with anyone charged with defaming the palace facing 15 years in jail.

Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha said Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn will become the new monarch after the death of his father, in accordance with the constitution. He said the government will notify the National Legislative Assembly, or parliament, of the king's successor, and it will act accordingly with the laws of succession in the constitution.

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 driving accident that deprived him of sight 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 king's coronation ceremony.

The name Bhumibol means "Strength of the Land," and the bounty of Thailand's soil and waters was the king's passion. In 1952 he set out to breed a better freshwater fish, a staple of the Thai peasantry, in the ponds of his Chitralada Palace in Bangkok.

Over the course of his reign, as Thailand hurtled from a traditional agrarian society of 18 million people to a modern, industrializing nation of 70 million, Bhumibol spearheaded more than 4,300 development projects aimed at improving life for his people. He traveled to the farthest reaches of his nation to join village elders on a patch of grass to discuss the recent harvest or plot an irrigation ditch.

"They say that a kingdom is like a pyramid: the king on top and the people below," he once told an Associated Press reporter. "But in this country it's upside down. That's why I sometimes have a pain around here." He pointed to his neck and shoulders.

While normally in the background of government theater, the king stepped to the forefront at crucial moments. During a pro-democracy uprising in 1973, he ordered the gates of the Grand Palace to be opened to students fleeing the gunfire of troops loyal to a dictatorial triumvirate. The message was clear, and the trio went into exile. In 1992, during another bloody confrontation between the military and pro-democracy protesters, the king called in the two key protagonists, who prostrated themselves before him on nationwide TV and promised peace. The crisis ended immediately.

After mass protests against Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra began in 2006, Bhumibol urged the country's top courts to resolve the political crisis. A bloodless military coup followed, and part of the army rationale for intervening was Thaksin's alleged disrespect for the king.

By 2011, the king's health had worsened and Thaksin's sister Yingluck Shinawatra had become prime minister through elections. Mass protests helped fuel an unstable climate that triggered another army coup in 2014.

Through it all, Bhumibol himself remained adored and revered. His occasional public outings drew tens of thousands of people into the streets trying to catch a glimpse, with most dressed in the royal color yellow.
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