Thailand’s King Bhumibol, World’s Longest-Reigning Monarch, Dies
He was 88 and had been the world’s longest reigning monarch.
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, where he had been treated for various health problems for most of the past decade.
During a reign that spanned 70 years, the US-born 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 neighbours fell under communist control.
In his heyday, the frail-looking, soft-spoken man in spectacles wielded so much power and respect that he was able to quell coups and rebellions with a gesture or a few well-chosen words.
Bodhisattva or the Holy Being
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 and help resolve everything from water and food shortages to family squabbles. He played half a dozen musical instruments and jammed with American jazz greats including Benny Goodman.
World's Richest Monarch
By the twilight of his rule, Bhumibol had become 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.
Although not known for having extravagant tastes, he nevertheless lived the elite life of a modern-day king, racing yachts and appearing at official functions clothed in ornate golden robes.
Retirement From Public Life
Over the last decade, the once vigorous Bhumibol had withdrawn from public life due to a series of illnesses. His wife, Queen Sirikit, has also long been ailing and has been even more rarely seen.
The king had been notably silent about the political upheaval and protests that have shaken the country in recent years.
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.
Heir to the King: Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn
The king's heir apparent is his son, Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, who does not hold his father's place in Thai hearts. There are other possible candidates for succession, and Bhumibol had the constitutional right to appoint a successor, but it was not immediately known whether he had done so.
With the king's passing, the world's longest reigning monarch is Queen Elizabeth II, who ascended to the British throne in 1952.
Who Was Bhumibol?
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. Bhumibol, then an 18-year-old prince, was named king 12 hours later following an extraordinary legislative session.
After the shooting, Bhumibol returned to Switzerland, where he was studying law and political science. 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.
Together they helped bridge East and West, visiting nearly 30 countries early in their reign. Bhumibol addressed the US Congress when Dwight D Eisenhower was president, dined with French leader Charles de Gaulle and met Elvis Presley on a visit with his queen to a Paramount Studios movie set in 1960.
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".
(Published in an arrangement with the AP)
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