King Bhumibol of Thailand dies aged 88

Thailand’s King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the world’s longest-reigning monarch, died on Thursday aged 88 after seven decades on the throne in which his country was transformed from a genteel Southeast Asian way station into an international hub of trade and tourism.

The death of the only sovereign most Thais have known will prompt a mass outpouring of grief and trigger fresh questions about the country’s political transition under military rulers who have tentatively promised elections next year.

In a televised statement, Gen Prayuth Chan-ocha, the coup leader turned prime minister, indicated that Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, long the heir apparent, would succeed to the throne as envisaged. Gen Prayuth asked government officials to wear black clothes for a one-year mourning period and for flags to be lowered for 30 days.

All reporting on the Thai monarchy, and particularly the personalities involved, is constrained by strict lèse-majesté laws that threaten 15 years in jail per offence.

The king died in hospital in Bangkok after a long illness, according to a statement from the Royal Household Bureau.

King Bhumibol had a revered, semi-divine status in Thailand, a position additionally secured by the lèse-majesté rules that authorities have used harshly against opponents of the May 2014 coup. His health had declined sharply in later years, and he had a near four-year stay in hospital between 2009 and 2013 as the country lurched between political crises.

King Bhumibol came to power after his predecessor and elder brother, Ananda Mahidol, was shot dead in still unexplained circumstances at the Grand Palace in Bangkok in June 1946. The US-born and Swiss-educated King Bhumibol, known as Rama IX, was just 18 when he took the throne.

He accumulated great prestige as his reign grew longer, establishing himself as a moral “father of the nation” figure and benefiting from the revival or enhancement of mystical traditional practices such as prostration and royal ploughing ceremonies.

His rule, boosted by Thailand’s long alliance with the US, outlasted the 1970s turmoil of war and revolution that overthrew or emasculated monarchies elsewhere in Southeast Asia. The stability allowed Thailand to make itself a leading holiday destination, attract foreign investment and launch a long export-led manufacturing boom that lifted it into the ranks of middle-income countries.

While King Bhumibol received — and the law demanded — unyielding respect from large numbers of Thais, questions have grown in private over the role played by the palace in the political battles that have periodically rocked the country during the past decade.

Coups backed by the traditional establishment against elected governments in 2014 and 2006 both received royal authorisation, as did the previous 10 successful putsches since the end of absolute monarchy in 1932.

Government officials have always maintained that the monarchy sits above, and plays no role in, politics, except in times of national crisis.

The backdrop to the king’s later years was a battle between forces aligned with the royalist traditional establishment, backed by the military, and an electorally dominant movement led by Thaksin Shinawatra, a controversial plutocrat turned prime minister who is now in self-exile.

The latest military government in Bangkok has promised to hand over to a civilian administration, although it would retain significant powers under a new constitution approved in a tightly controlled referendum in August.

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