Bangkok – King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who died peacefully on Thursday, was the world’s longest-reigning monarch, credited with restoring the influence of Thailand’s royalty during 70 years on the throne and earning the devotion of many of his subjects.
For the majority of the country’s 68 million people, the king was a pillar of stability in rapidly changing times — Thailand embraced industrialization during his reign but also saw its parliamentary democracy punctuated by 10 military coups, the most recent in May 2014.
King Bhumibol, who ascended the throne on June 9, 1946, was seen as a force for unity, and there have long been concerns that the political tensions that have riven Thailand over the past decade could worsen after his death.
That may be less likely under the regime of the leader of the most recent coup, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha. The former general has held a tight grip on power since toppling the remnants of Thailand’s last democratic government in 2014.
“His Majesty has passed away at Siriraj Hospital peacefully,” the palace said in a statement on Thursday, adding he died at 15:52.
Thailand has been divided for years between the royalist establishment and the red-shirted supporters of exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a 2006 coup.
Telecommunications billionaire Thaksin, now in self-exile, built up a powerful patronage network that competed for power and opportunity with Thailand’s old-money order.
The king had been in poor health for some time, and has spent most of the past six years in Bangkok’s Siriraj hospital.
The Royal Household Bureau in its statement on Thursday did not give a reason for the king’s death. The king had been treated for a respiratory infection, a build up of fluid surrounding the brain and a swollen lung in the past few months.
Born in 1927 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where his father, Prince Mahidol, was studying medicine, King Bhumibol spent much of his early life abroad, first in the United States and then in Switzerland.
He became king in 1946 after the still unexplained gunshot death of his elder brother, 20-year-old King Ananda Mahidol who was also known as Rama VIII. King Bhumibol returned to Thailand for good four years later to be crowned King Rama IX.
The saxophone-playing King Bhumibol was a celebrity visitor to foreign capitals in the early years of his reign with Queen Sirikit, a distant cousin whom he married in 1950 shortly before his coronation.
Though officially above politics, he first started to speak out on political issues in the 1960s against the backdrop of a creeping communist insurgency.
The king’s image as a political truce-maker peaked after bloody clashes in 1992 between pro-democracy protesters and the army. He summoned the protagonists, a former general leading the protests and an army-chief-turned-prime minister, and with the two prostrate before him, ordered them to desist.
His intervention led to the subsequent collapse of military rule.
The king was seen as semi-divine by many ordinary Thais, an image bolstered by Thailand’s education and legal systems.
“The King shall be enthroned in a position of revered worship and shall not be violated,” states the constitution.
Now, the country faces an uncertain future. The vast majority of Thais have lived only under Bhumibol.
His successor, Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, 63, has taken a more prominent part in royal ceremonial and public appearances in recent years, but he does not command the same level of devotion as his father.