Thailand on Sunday marked the 83rd birthday of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the world’s longest-reigning monarch, but elaborate celebrations could not mask concern over his health and the future of the royal institution.
In his annual birthday speech, the king sounded what has become a routine, general call for unity and hard work to keep the country happy and prosperous in the face of the sometimes violent political conflict it has endured in recent years.
Thousands of flag-waving citizens cheered his car’s journey to the ceremonial Grand Palace from Siriraj Hospital, where he was admitted in September 2009 with a lung inflammation.
There has been no detailed explanation of his extended stay in hospital. The king’s health is a matter of immense public concern, both because he is widely admired and because he is regarded as a unifying figure in times of national crisis. Shouts of “Long live the king” rang out as he entered the hospital lobby in a motorised wheelchair and headed to board a van, in which Queen Sirikit also sat.
On sidewalks close to the hospital, the crowd was five or six deep, with those immediately along the street kneeling reverentially. Police and soldiers lined the entire route for the 12-minute journey through Bangkok.
Massive ceremonies were held later in the day, as on past occasions honouring the king. They included a candle-lighting show of devotion led by the prime minister, fireworks, the release of thousands of small hot-air balloons and a night-time boat procession on Bangkok’s Chao Phraya river.
Speaking briefly in a slow and rasping voice to dignitaries at the Grand Palace, the king urged people to be clear about their duties and carry them out to the best of their ability.
He called for them to perform “justly and firmly, doing your duties correctly in an appropriate manner, for the security of the country and its benefit”. The annual birthday speech has for several years been the main forum for the king to present his ideas directly to the public.
Bhumibol’s near-disappearance from public life has coincided with a period of political instability after a 2006 military coup against Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra polarised the country. The king has been unable or unwilling to play his traditional mediating role to ease the conflict.
Defenders of the status quo, including the current government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, say the monarchy is under attack by radicals who wish to undermine its authority and prestige, or even abolish it. While serious opponents of the royal institution are a tiny minority – and liable to long jail terms if they speak publicly – the past few years have seen unprecedented questioning of the monarchy.