King Bhumibol of Thailand, the world’s longest serving head of state, has died at the age of 88. The royal palace confirmed the monarch "passed away peacefully" at Siriraj Hospital in Bangkok on Thursday afternoon.
The Bangkok Post reports that the government has set a one-year mourning period, and all public institutions will fly flags at half mast for 30 days starting on Friday.
Early on Thursday morning, hours before the King's death, the people of Thailand were already anxiously awaiting news about the health of their beloved monarch. Dressed in pink, the color of luck in the country, and holding placards of support for their ailing monarch, well-wishers had gathered outside Siriraj hospital, where he was reported to be in unstable condition and on a ventilator after receiving hemodialysis treatment over the weekend.
Revered as a symbol of unity and regarded as the ‘soul of the nation’, Bhumibol recently celebrated 70 years on the throne. The occasion was marked with a ceremony in Bangkok’s Royal Palace, in which alms were bestowed on 770 orange-robed monks. Meanwhile, the public showed their devotion by wearing yellow, the color of royalty. Such is the respect for the monarch – also known as Rama IX, a title signaling that he is the ninth sovereign of the Chakri dynasty, founded in 1782 – that shops ran out of yellow shirts.
Sadly, the royal patriarch, who is seen as projecting neutrality and stability amid the political turmoil and frequent coups in the country, was confined to his hospital bed during the festivities, suffering ill health as he has for much of the last decade. Nor does his wife Queen Sirikit, the world’s longest serving consort, make public appearances since a stroke in 2012.
King Bhumibol and wife Queen Sirikit during a visit to Britain in 1966 Photo: PA
The King’s tenure surpasses Queen Elizabeth II’s 64 years on the throne. And as with the British monarch, no one ever suspected at birth that he would wear the crown. Bhumibol Adulyajeh, was born in 1927 in the United States, where his father Prince Mahidol was studying public health at Harvard University. His mother, Princess Srinagarindra, was an orphan from a humble family. The couple’s paths crossed when Mahidol sponsored a number of students studying nursing in the US, one of whom was Srinagarindra.
All Thai names have meaning. Bhumibol’s signifies ‘the strength of the land, incomparable power’ and is pronounced ‘pu-mi-pon’, while Sirikit is ‘the glory of her family’. In his case the illustrious moniker did not guarantee an auspicious start. His father passed away after suffering kidney failure when he was just two years old. Further family tragedy followed with the death of his older brother Ananda in 1946 in a shooting accident. It was at this point that Swiss-educated Bhumibol found himself heir to the throne.
At his coronation in 1950, Bhumibol pledged to “reign with righteousness for the benefit and happiness of the people”. A week earlier he had married Sirikit, the intelligent, beautiful daughter of the Thai ambassador to Britain, after presenting her with his mother’s engagement ring. Like his UK counterpart Queen Elizabeth, Bhumibol welcomed four children during his marriage. And like Britain’s Prince Charles, his heir Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn is already in his sixties.
The King's reign was longer than Queen Elizabeth's 64 years on the throne Photo: PA
The Thai Crown Prince trained as a military pilot, and in fact he took part in counter-insurgency operations in the 1970s. He also has seven children from three marriages.
There are few Thais able to remember a time when King Bhumibol wasn’t on the throne. He kept his pledge to his people, who recount how he used to make frequent tours of impoverished rural areas, spending hours listening to villagers’ concerns about health, education and sanitation before setting up projects to help. In an interview about his role in the 1970s, the softly spoken royal explained simply: “I do things that I think are useful.”
"I do things that I think are useful," King Bhumibol once said of his leadership style Photo: PA
In his spare time, he became an accomplished saxophonist who jammed with jazz legends like Benny Goodman and Stan Getz. He also composed music. Among his 48 original tunes are Candlelight Blues, the lighthearted Love at Sundown and the more wistful Falling Rain.
Former Prime Minister Kukrit Pramoj has summed up the Thai people's feelings for their beloved King: “He is the head of the clan, the father of a very big family. He’s the source of Thai culture, everything emanates from him – good manners, the way of living, the best Thai thinking.”