BANGKOK (AP) — In an age when most of the world’s blue bloods cut ribbons and meekly approved whatever their governments proposed, the 70-year reign of Thailand’s King Bhumibol Adulyadej stood out in sharp relief, perhaps a throwback to a long-vanished past.
Enjoying an almost god-like status, Bhumibol wielded real political power and inspired mass popularity as the world’s longest-reigning monarch.
Despite being held in great reverence, the king waded through rice paddies and trudged up hillsides to improve life for Thailand’s have-nots. He could squat humbly with lowland farmers and opium-growing hill tribesmen to talk about crops, irrigation and even their marital problems.
Bhumibol guided his country through political upheaval and wrenching social and economic change, and yet, in his final years, more Thais questioned the need for a powerful monarchy in the 21st century. Some critics believed its dependence on the king hindered democratic development. In any case, it is almost certain his successor will not have the same influence.
Thus, when the Royal Palace announced that Bhumibol had died Thursday at the age of 88, there was an instant and immense outpouring of grief.
Tearful mourners holding photos of the king stood outside Bangkok’s Siriraj Hospital, chanting prayers and looking up at the building. Since September 2009, he had spent most of his time there, first with a lung infection and then for physical therapy and other ailments.
Born in the United States while his father was studying at Harvard, Bhumibol Adulyadej (pronounced poo-me-pon ah-dun-yaa-det) was widely regarded by generations of Thais as the key stabilizing force in their politically fractious country, and many fear a dangerous vacuum after his passing.
The frail-looking, soft-spoken man in spectacles squelched coups and rebellions three times with just a gesture or a few well-chosen words.
As the nation once known as Siam hurtled from an agrarian society to a modern, industrializing nation of 70 million, he upheld traditional values and spearheaded thousands of projects. He traveled the country to seek solutions for problems of inadequate food, water, health and jobs, aiming to set examples for the government to build on.
“They say that a kingdom is like a pyramid: the king on top and the people below,” he once told an Associated Press reporter. “But in this country, it’s upside down. That’s why I sometimes have a pain around here.” He pointed to his neck and shoulders.
Although not extravagant, Bhumibol was the world’s wealthiest monarch and one of its richest individuals, with a fortune estimated at about $30 billion by Forbes magazine.
Criticizing the king in general is dangerous in Thailand because speaking ill of the royal family is a crime punishable by imprisonment.
Even so, the nation teems with sincere signs of affection for Bhumibol. Taxi windows proclaim “Long Live the King,” and ubiquitous posters depict him not only as an exalted figure in glimmering robes, but also as an ordinary-looking man.
Courtiers and Thai guests to his palaces approached him on their knees and addressed him using a special royal vocabulary. But his common touch was evident in the countryside, where he rolled up his sleeves in lifelong service of the poor.
In his twilight years, however, his legacy was at least somewhat eroded by political and social divisions that erupted in mass street protests and a 2006 military coup. Suspicions that the palace took sides against the elected prime minister began eroding monarchy-worship, and Thais who would never have dared criticize the king in his heyday began asking whether the monarchy’s power had advanced or impeded Thailand’s march to full-fledged democracy. In ill health and near-seclusion, the king did not directly participate in the debate.
An uprising in the Muslim-dominated south further frayed the national unity for which Bhumibol worked all his life. Despite the royal family’s hands-on efforts to win hearts and minds, the conflict has claimed more than 5,000 lives since early 2004.
Even the forces of nature seemed to conspire against him when the worst flooding in almost six decades hit Thailand’s north and central regions in 2011. The king had taken a special interest in water management, researching floods and drought and suggesting solutions.
Disillusioned in recent years with societal greed, environmental destruction and the sidelining of traditions, the king said he tried to move with the times.
“A constitutional monarch must change with the country, but at the same time he must keep the spirit of the country,” he declared. People may be different, he said, “but the common character of the people must be embodied by the king.”
With Bhumibol’s passing, the world’s longest reigning monarch is England’s Queen Elizabeth II, who ascended in 1952.
Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha said Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn will become the new monarch, in accordance with the constitution. He said the government will notify the National Legislative Assembly, or parliament, of the succession.
Prayuth told reporters he had an audience with the prince, hours after Bhumibol’s death, and Vajiralongkorn had asked for a delay in proclaiming him king so he could “take some time to mourn, together with the people of Thailand.”
Vajiralongkorn does not enjoy his father’s stature. He has had to deny rumors of illegal activities; his personal life – married and divorced three times – has been stormy.
Technically, the throne could have passed to one of Vajiralongkorn’s sons or to his sister, the popular Princess Sirindhorn. Bhumibol also has two daughters, Chulabhorn and Ubol Ratana.
“The next king will not be as influential as King Bhumibol, and I would bet that there will be a lot of competition to gain power over him or her by the military and political factions who want to use the king for their own ends,” said Paul Handley, American author of “The King Never Smiles,” a biography scorned by monarchists for its frank criticism. The book was banned in Thailand, and a Thai-American man was arrested for allegedly posting translations of parts of it on the internet.
Under the constitution, the king serves as head of state and placed in “a position of revered worship,” but real political power rests in the hands of parliament and a prime minister. Bhumibol’s clout issued from his own immense popularity and the ability of royalists to implement his wishes.
Bhumibol was born Dec. 5, 1927, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, while his father, Prince Mahidol of Songkhla, was studying medicine at Harvard University. Mahidol died less than two years later.
In 1946, Bhumibol’s 20-year-old brother, King Ananda Mahidol, was found dead of a gunshot wound to the head in a palace bedroom under circumstances that remain mysterious. Bhumibol, just 18, was named king the same day but returned to Switzerland to continue studying law and political science.
He played a half-dozen musical instruments, jammed with American jazz greats and wrote a song, “Blue Night,” that was used in a racy Broadway musical a month after his May 5, 1950, coronation. He raced yachts and expounded in several languages on Buddhist philosophy and dam construction.
Thailand’s power brokers initially thought the young king could be easily manipulated. But the various strongmen found more than their match as he set about restoring the prestige of a seven-century-old monarchy whose absolute powers weren’t bound by a constitution until 1932.
A week before his coronation, he married Sirikit Kitiyakara, the daughter of an aristocrat and diplomat. She had helped nurse him back to health after a 1948 road accident blinded him in his right eye. Together they bridged East and West, visiting nearly 30 countries early in their reign.
Bhumibol addressed the U.S. Congress when Dwight D. Eisenhower was president and dined with French leader Charles de Gaulle.
Normally in the background, the king stepped forward at crucial moments.
During a pro-democracy uprising in 1973, Bhumibol ordered the gates of the Grand Palace opened to students fleeing the gunfire of troops loyal to a dictatorial triumvirate. The message was clear, and the trio went into exile.
In 1992, amid another bloody confrontation between the military and pro-democracy protesters, the king called in the two key protagonists, who prostrated themselves before him on nationwide TV and promised peace. The crisis ended immediately.
The name Bhumibol means “Strength of the Land,” and the bounty of Thailand’s soil and waters was the king’s passion.
In 1952, he set out to breed a better freshwater fish, a staple of the Thai peasantry, in the ponds of his Chitralada Palace in Bangkok. It was the first of more than 4,300 palace-sponsored development projects, with 40 percent related to water resources. Many of the projects, including the initial one, have proved successful, although others have frayed over the years.
The king chained himself to an annual work cycle in the 1970s and ’80s, traveling 30,000 kilometers (20,000 miles) through the countryside while still managing to officiate at more than 500 royal, religious and state ceremonies.
He believed national unity would be strengthened and Thailand’s then-potent communist insurgents would simply wither in the jungle, while the country would be spared the revolutions spreading through neighboring Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos.
A major achievement was pioneering work in eradicating opium grown by northern hill tribes.
“It has become an instrument of destruction. … The drugs subjugate the body, the money subjugates the soul,” he said, funding the first project in the world to convince the tribes that there was more money in crops other than opium.
The experts at first were skeptical, but three years later, in 1969, the U.N., the U.S. and other foreign donors formally joined forces and opium production was dramatically slashed. The work has since been studied as a blueprint for other countries.
The weight of royalty and Bhumibol’s work for the have-nots won him a following backed up by nightly TV programs that tracked his every move. He also was protected from criticism by harsh lese majeste laws against insulting the royal family. Those laws were rarely used for most of his reign but have been repeatedly invoked in recent years, despite international criticism and allegations they were used for political purposes.
Thailand recently has been plagued by corruption and a city-country poverty gap that came to a head in 2006, in confrontations between then-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and an alliance staging mass protests. Thaksin drew support largely from the rural poor, while many of his fiercest opponents represented the country’s business and bureaucratic elite.
Bhumibol urged the top courts to resolve the crisis. The demonstrators had urged the king to make Thaksin resign. A bloodless military coup followed, and Thaksin, who had been attending the U.N. General Assembly, went into exile. The new military-backed government said the king endorsed the coup after it took place but had not ordered it.
The crisis simmered, with Thaksin’s opponents – the so-called “Yellow Shirts” – claiming the mantle of defending the monarchy.
With the country polarized, Queen Sirikit attended the funeral of a Yellow Shirt follower killed in clashes, undermining the axiom that the throne was above politics.
In his final years, Bhumibol retreated increasingly behind palace walls. Some cited poor health and others speculated he was dispirited about the succession and future of the monarchy.
Some of his private conversations at the time reflected a deep concern that Thailand had lost much of the core culture he had sought to embody all his life.
Associated Press writer Todd Pitman contributed.