BANGKOK – Thailand put politics aside Thursday to celebrate the 86th birthday of its revered monarch, who used his annual birthday speech to call for national stability but made no direct reference to the crisis that has deeply divided the country.
Violence and street battles between anti-government protesters and police were put on hold as both sides observed a truce to mark the birthday of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who has often served as a unifying figure for Thailand in times of crisis.
Crowds dressed in the royal color of yellow lined the roads in the seaside town of Hua Hin to catch a glimpse of the world’s longest reigning monarch. They shouted “Long live the king!” as his motorcade drove slowly to Klai Kangwon Palace, which literally means “Far From Worries.”
Onlookers wept as the king spoke, taking great effort and pausing for long stretches during his brief five-minute speech. He thanked the people for coming together “in good will” to wish him well.
“Our country has long experienced happiness because we have been united in performing our duties and working together for the good of the whole country,” the king said.
He wore a ceremonial golden robe and sat on a throne before an audience that included Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and her Cabinet ministers, Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn and his three sisters, as well as the leaders of the armed forces.
“All Thais should consider this very much and focus on doing their duties . . . which are the security and stability of the country,” he said.
As a constitutional monarch, the king has no official political role, but no other figure commands the same moral authority or the same loyalty from the armed forces in the coup-prone country.
Many people were hopeful the king would step in — as he has done in the past — to ease the current standoff, which results from years of enmity between supporters and opponents of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, Yingluck’s brother. Thaksin was deposed by a 2006 military coup after being accused of corruption and disrespect for the king, but critics say he continues to control Thai politics through Yingluck and his powerful political machine.
However, the king is a less vigorous figure than he used to be. His infrequent public appearances are poignant, since he is visibly infirm with age and uses a wheelchair. In July, he ended a nearly four-year hospital stay — initially for treatment of a lung infection — to live in the seaside palace.
After the speech, it was clear that the king’s words had done little to heal the country’s bitter divide. At Democracy Monument in Bangkok, one of the main antigovernment rally sites, hundreds of people gathered to show respect for the king, but when images of Yingluck appeared on giant screens the crowd booed and many shouted obscenities.
At the protest headquarters, the movement’s leader, Suthep Thaugsuban, said the truce would end Friday.
“Today is a day that Thai people nationwide believe is an auspicious day,” Suthep said after watching the king’s speech. “Tomorrow the people’s movement will continue to eradicate the Thaksin regime from Thailand.”
Political street fighting that had wracked pockets of Bangkok since the weekend ended abruptly Tuesday ahead of the birthday celebrations. The protesters are seeking to bring down Yingluck’s government and institute an unelected “people’s council” to administer the country. Critics have called the idea utopian and undemocratic.
Before the break for the king’s birthday, the violence killed five people and wounded at least 277 since the weekend.