BANGKOK — Thailand’s revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the world’s longest-serving head of state, died Thursday at the age of 88 after a long illness, sparking a tidal wave of profound sorrow and raising the prospect of eventual violent confrontation in this deeply divided southeast Asian nation of 67 million.
Bhumibol, also known as Rama IX—he’s the ninth king of the Chakri Dynasty—was the longest-reigning monarch in Thai history, having ascended the throne in June 1946. Prime Minister and Army Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha announced there would be a one-year mourning period for government officials. Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongorn, 64, will succeed his father.
In a rather surreal scenario, the king died at 3:52 p.m. Thailand time, and his death was being reported by some regional media, but not by Thai news outlets or even Thai officials, who kept telling Thais to stand by. When the news finally filtered out shortly before 7pm local time, hundreds of yellow-clad Thais (yellow was the color of the king's standard) who had gathered at Siriraj Hospital, where the monarch died peacefully, fell to their knees, many wailing. Some of those who had been chanting "Long live the King!" burst into tears.
"His Majesty has passed away at Siriraj Hospital peacefully," the royal palace finally announced.
On Thursday, despair cloaked the country, most of whose citizens have only known a world with the king in it, and all of whom cannot fathom one without him. In the capital, Thais wept openly as they attempted to go about normal routines. Red-eyed passengers on Bangkok’s skytrain and subway lines sat and stood zombie-like as they rode to their destinations.
King Bhumibol (pronounced pum-i-pon) had been ailing for more than a decade, checking in and out of hospital as he battled a litany of ailments—including blood infections, swollen lungs, diverticulitis, heart problems, and pneumonia. Distraught Thais would parse reports and updates on his health and hospital stays, looking for good news. Hundreds of his subjects would occupy the grounds of the riverside Siriraj Hospital, where he virtually lived in recent years, refusing to leave the Bangkok facility until he was discharged.
Late Sunday the royal palace said in a terse statement that His Majesty was "unstable" after receiving hemodialysis, a treatment in which a dialysis machine and a dialyzer—a special filter sometimes called an artificial kidney—are used to clean a patient’s blood. The bulletin also indicated that the king effectively was unable to fulfill his role as head of state. Three days later the palace reported that his condition was "overall not yet stabilized." Loyal subjects flocked to the medical campus again this week, beseeching the dangerously ill monarch to get well. But the king, last seen in public on January 11 in Bangkok, did not bounce back this time. His family was at his bedside when he died.
"We have to try to turn this common sense of grief into a common sense of hope," Thai political analyst Verapat Pariyawong told the BBC.
King Bhumibol presided over a nation that has been racked by turmoil. He was served by 30 prime ministers and saw the introduction—and abrogation—of 16 constitutions or temporary charters. Ten successful military coups occurred on his watch. Through it all, the king was the constant, along with his consort, Queen Sirikit, their children, and the royal household. The queen also has been seriously ill in recent years and is not seen often in public.
The king’s death is a seismic development in a decade of instability, political rancor and power struggles, years stained by violent street protests and two military coups. The first coup, in 2006, overthrew populist Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. The most recent, in May 2014, ousted Yingluck Shinawatra, Thaksin’s younger sister who had been comfortably elected by the same Thais who had swept her brother to victory and steadfastly supported various iterations of the political party he founded in the mid-1990s.
The 2014 putsch was led by Prayuth, who installed himself as prime minister and proceeded to rule with an iron first. He claimed the junta’s seizure of power was necessary to end the cycle of demonstrations and counter-demonstrations staged by followers of the ”populist” Thaksin on the one hand and a coalition of “elites”—business people, ultra-royalists and supporters of the military—on the other. For many, Prayuth’s noblesse-oblige was a smokescreen for restoring the centuries-long domination of these elites. The restoration effort culminated last August in a highly managed referendum that saw Thais endorsing a new constitution that provides for a Senate that’s fully appointed—by the military—and establishment of a supercommittee able to remove an elected prime minister if the panel determines his or her government is fatally flawed.
Analysts expected the amended constitution to be in place before the end of this year, with a new general election likely in late 2017. The king’s death, however, could delay both the promulgation of a new constitution and fresh elections.
“This is the best justification for the government,” says Kan Yuenyong, director of the Siam Intelligence Unit, a Bangkok think tank.
The military regime has steadily tightened its grip and squeezed citizens’ rights. It abandoned martial law, but replaced it with something harsher—a heavy-handed application of Article 44 of the interim constitution. Article 44 grants Prayuth absolute power: to prevent the undermining of public peace, he may give any order to “strengthen public unity and harmony.” Among other things, Article 44 also allows soldiers to detain people for up to seven days without a warrant, prohibits political gatherings of more than five people, and permits the military to block publication or broadcast of news deemed likely to result in “fear or distorted information.”
It is Article 44, among other levers of power, that makes the prospect of violence eventual rather than imminent. The regime has cowed opposition politicians and activists with the measure, making it difficult for them—the so-called Red Shirts—to take to the streets, severely curtailing access to radio, TV and newspapers, harassing the media into self-censorship, and cracking down on social media.
“They can say they suppress violence and unrest and street protests and paralyzing the government on the country and get the people’s support that way,” says Kan. “In the short term nothing will happen. But support for the military has declined since the referendum.”
The junta also liberally employs the draconian lèse majesté law, which forbids insulting the royal family, to silence opponents—who don’t relish the idea of serving prison sentences that range from 14 years to decades. Opponents say the government exploits the nation’s deep affection for the king, who after all had said in the past that he was not above criticism.
Bhumibol was born at Mount Auburn Hospital in Cambridge, Massachusetts on December 5, 1927, the only king born on American soil. His father, Prince Mahidol Adulyadej, was studying medicine at Harvard University at the time. A year later the family was back in Thailand. Bhumibol succeeded his brother Ananda Mahidol as king after the young monarch’s mysterious death by a gunshot wound at age 20. Bhumibol’s succession came a mere 14 years after the absolute monarchy was abolished. The young king studied law and political science in Switzerland after acceding, returning home in the early 1950s.
In April 1950, the king married Sirikit Kitiyakara, the daughter of Thailand’s ambassador to France. They eventually had four children: Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, Princess Ubolratana Rajakanya, Princess Chulaborn Walailak, and the widely popular Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn.
The monarch, as well as the queen, became very popular in Thailand, and the king grew influential despite being a constitutional monarch with limited actual governmental powers. Over the decades he was known for a variety of national projects, from irrigation, land reform, and infrastructure-building to his “sufficiency economy” theory and championship of medical care for rural residents. His skill at helping to resolve crisis in the country is often told via events in 1992 when he intervened to end violence that followed a military coup. King Bhumibol summoned Army chief and coup leader Suchinda Kraprayoon and opposition leader Chamlong Srimuang to the palace and in a televised meeting called for hostilities to end. Suchinda soon resigned and a caretaker government was installed ahead of new elections.
For many, he was the adhesive that kept the fractious Land of Smiles together. Some prayed that he would live forever. With him gone, the question now is how long the military’s comprehensive control can prevent frustration from boiling over.