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Obituary

Dead aged 88: Bhumibol Adulyadej, Thailand's 'saintly' king

King Bhumibol Adulyadej has passed away at the age of 88. The monarch had reigned in Thailand since 1946. Though Bhumibol was highly revered, commentators disagree regarding his legacy as well as his influence.

Thailand's palace announced the death of King Bhumibol Adulyadej on Thursday evening in a statement.

"His Majesty has passed away at Siriraj Hospital peacefully," the palace said, without giving a cause of death, adding that he died at 15:52 local time (0852 UTC/GMT).

Watch video 02:49

Thailand mourns King Bhumibol - Interview Wolfram Schaffar, South East Asia expert, University of Vienna

The 64-year-old Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn will be the new monarch, the prime minister said in a televised address. Prayuth Chan-ocha said the king had designated his son as his successor in 1972. "We the government must proceed with the next steps in accordance with the law," he said, adding that Thailand would hold a one-year mourning period and that all entertainment would be "toned down" for a month.

Ill and confined to hospital for much of the past two years, the king's condition had deteriorated notably in the past week. Thailand's palace had issued two reports on his worsening condition on Sunday and Wednesday, prompting hundreds to keep vigil outside Bangkok's Siriraj hospital, many wearing pink and yellow shirts in his honor. 

Thailand's society has always been deeply divided. The government in Bangkok changes under the pressure of a popular uprising or a military coup every few years. But the one thing that united the warring factions was their reverence for the king.

For a vast number of Thais, Bhumibol Adulyadej was a saint who had acted as the guarantor of the country's unity and integrity. He was the head of state as well as the highest Buddhist authority in the country. Born on December 5, 1927, King Bhumibol's death was announced on Thursday.

The world's longest-serving monarch was a central element of the Thai identity, and his absence will leave a major social vacuum in its wake.

Closer to Europe than to Thailand

The power of the Thai royal dynasty was already on the wane when the 18-year-old Bhumibol ascended the throne in 1946 as Rama IX.

His elder brother Ananda had been found dead in his bedroom with a bullet in his head - an incident that remains a mystery to this day.

Bhumibol had spent most of his youth in Switzerland, where he learned French, Latin and German. He used to love skiing and acquired a lifelong love of fast cars and American music. At the beginning of his reign, Europe was more familiar to Bhumibol than his native country.

Thailand König Bhumibol Adulyadej (Getty Images/AFP/S. Khan)

King Bhumibol had reigned in Thailand since 1946

Steep ascent

Despite all handicaps, Bhumibol - with the aid of his court and his followers - managed to transform himself into the highest authority in Thailand.

A coup by government officials aided by members of the armed forces had replaced absolute monarchy with a constitutional one 14 years before he became king. As a constitutional monarch, he could not rely on political power so he reverted rather to the century-old tradition of the Dharmaraja, or "Good Ruler."

A Dharmaraja is selfless in his service to his people, whom he leads and guides according to the Buddhist ethical code. His "power" depends on his charisma and his moral authority.

Bhumibol's strategy was extremely successful - to this day, the three pillars of Thai society are said to be the nation, its religion and the king. The king's utterances often carried more weight than the law. One word from Bhumibol could nip the career of an up-and-coming politician in the bud.

Bhumibol has been known to influence the country's politics more than once: such as in 1992, when he forced a reconciliation between the embattled prime minister and his rival after the conflict had already cost the lives of hundreds of protesters. It was the last time that the monarch would interfere directly in Thai politics - henceforth preferring to play his role indirectly, from behind the scenes.

Thailand Gebete für König Bhumibol Adulyadej in Bangkok (Reuters/C. Subprasom)

Thais had been praying for the king's recovery

The king's 'image'

The king had his allies: mainly in the form of the princes of the royal family and the members of the royal council - nominated by the king himself - not to forget the monarch's very good relations with the military leadership.

A great deal of effort went into projecting the right image of the king in front of the Thai public. The image of the Dharmaraja was repeated ad infinitum in classrooms and school history books. In the early decades of his regency, there was no picture or photograph of the king on which he was not smiling, since his earnestness and dedication had to be emphasized. Apart from that, the palace presented Bhumibol as a master, whether in engineering, or in jazz music, sailing or painting.

A draconian lese majeste law enhanced the magical aura of the king by forbidding every form of criticism of the king or his family, however mild. But he was genuinely popular. The image most Thais carried in their hearts was the selfless king whose actions were always in the interest and for the welfare of his people.

The palace also dominated the economy. The so-called Crown Property Bureau (CPB) enabled the palace to bring key industries such as the cement industry under its control. The CPB has managed royal properties with such success that the Thai royal family counts among the richest in the world.

The rewards of division

Criticism was leveled against Bhumibol and the royal family that the crown performed only symbolic service for the unity of the country. The more profound dislocations within Thai society result from the unhealthy mixture of institutions with democratic legitimacy only in part, combined with feudal structures, as well as the army with its repeated encroachments into domestic politics.

Critics say the king took advantage of these divisions, instead of taking a stand against them - mainly to preserve his own power. Bhumibol's biographer Paul M. Handley believes that the king did not really trust western-style democracy, but believed in the unifying and healing power of a Dharmaraja instead.

And now that King Bhumibol, the Dharmaraja, is no more, nobody remains who can take up the burden after him. The 62-year-old Vajiralongkorn does not have the same standing as his father among the people. Bhumibol leaves behind a deeply divided nation whose simmering conflicts he could cover but not really solve.

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