Ailing Thai king calls for unity
BANGKOK: Thailand's revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej, making his first public comments since being hospitalized, marked his 82nd birthday Saturday with a call for peace and stability in a country that has been rocked by anti-government protests.
Thousands of well-wishers waving Thai flags cheered, cried and chanted "Song Phra Charoen" or "Long Live the King" as the monarch's motorcade made its way to the Grand Palace from the Bangkok hospital where he has been staying since Sept. 19.
Looking alert but tired and showing little expression, the king returned to the hospital after briefly appearing in front of members of the royal family, government officials and lawmakers.
"My happiness and prosperity will happen when the country flourishes and stabilizes," the king said, seated on a golden throne and dressed in a gold brocade robe. "The progress and stability will come true if everyone in the nation discharges their duty with all their might and puts the common interest before their own interest."
He did not mention the ongoing political crisis, which was sparked by a 2006 military coup that ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, whose supporters and opponents have since waged sometimes violent demonstrations. The king's brief comments — and journey to and from hospital — were broadcast live on Thai television.
Bhumibol has been on the throne for 63 years and is the world's longest-reigning monarch. While he is constitutional monarch with no formal political role, he is widely revered and regarded as the country's sole unifying figure.
Long-standing worries over the succession, combined with concerns about his heath have caused widespread unease. The palace has said the king is recovering from an inflammation of the lungs and is in no danger, but has offered scant information about his condition. The king now rarely appears in public.
Since Friday, well-wishers had gathered around the Siriraj Hospital in the Thai capital hoping for a glimpse of him. Many wore pink shirts as a tribute, a trend that first started two years ago when astrologers determined that pink was an auspicious color for the king's health.
Dolnapa Kladbuppa, a 31-year-old teacher from Bangkok, said she was overwhelmed to see the king as he was wheeled out to a waiting van.
"It's a great opportunity for a small person like me to meet the greatest king," said Dolnapa, clutching photos of Bhumibol. "People have come from all over Thailand to see the king. Being from Bangkok, I would have been ashamed not to come here and see him."
Thongsuk Saechin, an 86-year-old housewife who traveled from Nakhon Pathom, 55 miles (90 kilometers) northeast of the capital, said she had been coming each year since was 40 to wish the king well on his birthday — which is also designated Fathers' Day in Thailand.
The occasion was a chance for weary Thais to put aside political differences and unite behind one cause.
Such displays of unity have become rare in the three years since the coup in which former telecom magnate Thaksin was ousted for alleged corruption. He currently lives in exile but remains popular among the rural poor and wields influence from afar.
Last month, a pro-Thaksin protest group seeking to bring down the government called off its plans for a rally in Bangkok after criticism that it would interfere with the birthday celebrations.
The calm is likely to be short-lived. The pro-Thaksin United Front of Democracy against Dictatorship — informally known as the 'Red Shirts' due to their signature garb — has said it may take to the streets as early as Dec. 10 and warned that it will hold prolonged demonstrations next month until the current government resigns and agrees to fresh elections.
Bhumibol's birthday is typically celebrated with several days of fanfare that start with the king presiding over an annual military parade in his honor.
This year's military parade, which was scheduled for Wednesday, was canceled, as was his annual speech to the nation on the eve of his birthday. This is the second consecutive year the ailing king has had to cancel his widely watched televised speech for health reasons.
The king's health is a particularly sensitive topic because of concerns that the succession may not go smoothly. The heir apparent, Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, does not yet have the stature or moral authority of his father.
Open discussion of the matter is barred by strict lese majeste laws that make criticism of the monarchy punishable by up to 15 years in prison.