Thailand's King Bhumibol, world's longest reigning monarch, dies at 88

BANGKOK, Oct 13 (Reuters) - 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 industrialisation during his reign but also saw its parliamentary democracy punctuated by 10 military coups, the most recent in May 2014.

King Bhumibol through the years

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King Bhumibol Adulyadej through the years
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King Bhumibol Adulyadej through the years
Thailand's King Bhumibol Adulyadej waves as he returns to Siriraj Hospital after a ceremony at the Grand Palace in Bangkok in this December 5, 2010 file photo. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj/File Photo 
Thailand's King Bhumibol Adulyadej arrives to preside over the unveiling ceremony for the King Rama VIII monument in Bangkok in this June 9, 2012 file photo. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj/File Photo 
Thailand's King Bhumibol Adulyadej arrives back at the Siriraj Hospital, after a ceremony at the Anatasamakom Throne Hall, in Bangkok December 5, 2012. REUTERS/Kerek Wongsa/File Photo
Thailand's revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej (L) and Queen Sirikit wave to well-wishers on the 60th anniversary of the king's coronation in Bangkok in this June 9, 2006 file photo. REUTERS/Stringer/File Photo
Thailand's King Bhumibol Adulyadej (R) takes a photograph during his arrival at the Siriraj Hospital in Bangkok in this July 20, 2006 file photo. REUTERS/Chaiwat Subprasom/File Photo
Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej reads a statement convening Parliament in front of 391 newly elected members of parliament at Ananta Samakhom throne in Bangkok in this July 10, 1995 file photo. REUTERS/Apichart Weerawong/File Photo
Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej signs the royal command approving new cabinet of Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai (L) at the Chitrlada Palace in Bangkok November 14, 1997. REUTERS/File Photo TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
US President Bill Clinton (L) meets King Bhumibol Adulyadej in the royal residence November 26. Clinton arrived in Thailand for a brief state visit to commemorate the Thai king's 50th birthday on the throne and to help boost commercial ties.
BANGKOK, THAILAND - 1996/04/21: The king of Thailand, Bhumibol Adulyadej, presides over the start of the building of a bridge over the Chao Phraya river in Bangkok. (Photo by Thierry Falise/LightRocket via Getty Images)
BANGKOK, THAILAND: Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej reviews the honor guard as a part of the celebration to commemorate his 78 birthday at the Royal Plaza in Bangkok, 02 December 2005. King Bhumibol, the world's longest reigning monarch will turn 78 on 05 December 2005. Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn is sitting in front of the king. AFP PHOTO/ Saeed KHAN (Photo credit should read SAEED KHAN/AFP/Getty Images)
THAILAND - JUNE 09: Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej waves after giving a speech to nearly 1 million Thais as he stands with his wife, Queen Sirikit, on the balcony of the Ananda Samakhon Throne Hall in Bangkok, Thailand on Friday, June 9, 2006. Thailand's King Bhumibol Adulyadej will undergo surgery on his back July 20, a palace statement said today. (Photo by Udo Weitz/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
Bhumibol Adulyadej (born 1927), King of Thailand. He is also known as Rama IX, as he is the ninth monarch of the Chakri Dynasty. Having reigned since 9 June 1946 with his wife Queen Sirikit, 1960. (Photo by Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)
OSLO, NORWAY: Portrait of King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand, aka Rama IX, and King Olav V Of Norway at the palace of Oslo, Norway. (Photo by Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)
ROME, ITALY - SEPTEMBER 28: King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand, aka Rama IX, and wife Queen Sirikit Kitiyakara with Italian president Giovanni Gronchi (with wife Carla Bissatini in background) in Rome, Italy during an official visit of King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand in Italy on September 28, 1960. (Photo by Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)
PULLY, SWITZERLAND: Portrait of king Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand (21 years old) , aka Rama IX, with his future wife Sirikit Kitiyakara (17 years old) in Pully, Switzerland in 1949 - The king had suffered a heavy automobil accident in 1948 which he has not yet recovered. (Photo by Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)
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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 (0852 GMT).

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.

POOR HEALTH

The king had been in poor health for some time, and has spent most of the past six years in Bangkok's Siriraj hospital.

King Bhumibol was re-admitted in May 2015 and was last seen in public in January, when he spent several hours visiting his Bangkok palace.

The Royal Household Bureau in its statement on Thursday did not give a reason for the king's death. The king been treated for a respiratory infection, a build up of fluid surrounding the brain and a swollen lung in the past few months.

From illuminated billboards in bustling Bangkok to portraits in offices and millions of rural homes, Thailand is festooned with images of the jazz-loving king.

King Bhumibol headed a conservative establishment that still wields considerable power 84 years after the abolition of absolute monarchy.

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.

The king who acceded to the throne as a young man cut a quite different figure from the somber monarch into which he matured.

Over the years, he was groomed as a national figurehead through civic and ceremonial duties. He undertook a stint in the Buddhist monkhood and developed a keen interest in the environment and rural development.

Thailand prays for King Bhumibol Adulyadej

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Thailand prays for King Bhumibol Adulyadej
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Thailand prays for King Bhumibol Adulyadej
Well-wishers weep and pray for Thailand's King Bhumibol Adulyadej at the Siriraj hospital where he is residing in Bangkok, Thailand, October 13, 2016. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha
Well-wishers weep and pray for Thailand's King Bhumibol Adulyadej at the Siriraj hospital where he is residing in Bangkok, Thailand, October 13, 2016. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha
Well-wishers weep and pray for Thailand's King Bhumibol Adulyadej at the Siriraj hospital where he is residing in Bangkok, Thailand, October 13, 2016. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha
A well-wisher prays for Thailand's King Bhumibol Adulyadej at the Siriraj hospital where he is residing in Bangkok, Thailand, October 13, 2016. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha
Well-wishers pray for Thailand's King Bhumibol Adulyadej at the Siriraj hospital where he is residing in Bangkok, Thailand October 12, 2016. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha
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POLITICS

Though officially above politics, he first started to speak out on political issues in the 1960s against the backdrop of a creeping communist insurgency.

In 1973, he intervened personally after bloodshed in Bangkok when students demonstrated against military rule. He nominated a new prime minister, diffusing the political tension.

Although backing the students then, as a social conservative King Bhumibol was worried about the threat to public order inherent in any people's movement, and three years later he intervened on the side of the military after another bloody putsch.

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.

Often referred to as "Por," the Thai word for father, many Thais looked to him for moral guidance and saw him as a neutral arbiter during their nation's darkest hours.

"We are in the middle," the king said in a 1979 BBC documentary. "One day it would be very handy to have somebody impartial, because if you have in a country only groups or political parties which will have their own interest at heart, what about those who don't have power?"

The king retreated from active political intervention after the events of 1992 in favor of influence wielded through a network of aging generals, judges and bureaucrats on his Privy Council of advisers who helped oversee what some academics view as a "managed democracy," in which the military remained prominent.

The army avoided direct intervention in politics from 1992 until the 2006 coup against Thaksin, a populist telecoms billionaire the military said was corrupt and disloyal to the monarch.

Thailand's monarchy is one of the world's richest, although the value of its assets and the wealth of family members have never been made public.

The Crown Property Bureau, which manages the institutional assets of the monarchy, has stakes in top Thai firms such as Siam Commercial Bank and Siam Cement Group and extensive land holdings believed to be worth tens of billions of dollars.

Beautiful scenes from Thailand

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Thailand
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THAILAND - JUNE 15: Kamala Beach, Phuket, Thailand. (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)
[UNVERIFIED CONTENT] Phuket @ Thailand
KO SURIN, THAILAND - 2014/03/02: A tourist climbs one of the boulders on a beach in Mu Koh Surin National Park. (Photo by Taylor Weidman/LightRocket via Getty Images)
KO SURIN, THAILAND - 2014/03/02: Beachfront camping in Mu Koh Surin National Park. (Photo by Taylor Weidman/LightRocket via Getty Images)
Silhouetted tourists walk past fishing boats on Railay beach in Krabi, Thailand, on Saturday, Jan.18, 2014. The Bank of Thailand will probably reduce its key interest rate by 25 basis points, or 0.25 percentage point, to 2 percent today, according to the median of 21 economists' estimates compiled by Bloomberg. Photographer: Brent Lewin/Bloomberg via Getty Images
KRABI, THAILAND - 2013/11/10: Thai Speedboats closeup at Koh Chuek near Koh Lanta. (Photo by Olaf Protze/LightRocket via Getty Images)
KRABI, THAILAND - 2013/11/06: Wild Macaque at Ao Nang Beach. (Photo by Olaf Protze/LightRocket via Getty Images)
KRABI, THAILAND - 2013/11/07: Scenic sunset at Klong Nin Beach at Koh Lanta Island. (Photo by Olaf Protze/LightRocket via Getty Images)
Thailand, Phuket Province, Phuket, Big Buddha Temple. Large seated golden Buddha figure in temple courtyard. (Photo by: Eye Ubiquitous/UIG via Getty Images)
KRABI, THAILAND - 2013/11/06: Tourists at Ao Nang Beach play with Monkeys. (Photo by Olaf Protze/LightRocket via Getty Images)
KRABI, THAILAND - 2013/11/06: Tourist Boat full of tourists arriving at Ao Nang Beach. (Photo by Olaf Protze/LightRocket via Getty Images)
Thailand, Koh Samui, Choeng Mon Bay, Samui Peninsula Resort Massage Spa House overlooking beach (Photo by: Eye Ubiquitous/UIG via Getty Images)
To go with AFP Story Thailand-lifestyle-tourism-crime,FEATURE by Daniel Rook This picture taken on February 14, 2013 shows a tourist on Patong beach in Phuket, southern Thailand. From jet ski scams to robbery, assault and even police extortion, for the millions of tourists who flock to Thailand each year the kingdom does not always live up to its reputation as the 'Land of Smiles'. Now following a flurry of complaints, governments are urging the country to do more to protect the safety of the record numbers of foreign visitors. AFP PHOTO / Nicolas ASFOURI (Photo credit should read NICOLAS ASFOURI/AFP/Getty Images)
HUA HIN, THAILAND - 2012/12/28: Dragons, Gulf of Thailand at Khao Takiab towards the southern end of Hua Hin beach which is famous for its 20 meter tall Buddha. Meaning literally 'chopstick hill' Khao Takiab is at the southern end of Hua Hin beach famous for its 20 meter tall Buddha statue. There is a trail to the top of the mountain, where visitors can clearly admire the scenery of the Gulf of Thailand and Hua Hin city. (Photo by John S Lander/LightRocket via Getty Images)
KOH SAMUI, THAILAND - OCTOBER 17, 2012: In the early morning, view on Lazy Days Samui Beach Resort at Lamai Beach on Koh Samui. (Photo by Adrian Streun/ASAblanca via Getty Images)
PHUKET, THAILAND - NOVEMBER 22: Mark Kok Loong Leong of Singapore competes in the Semi Final of the Men's Team Slalom Water Ski during the 2014 Asian Beach Games at Bangneow Dam on November 22, 2014 in Phuket, Thailand. (Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)
Thailand, Phuket Province, Wat Chalong, Highly decorative Buddhist temple exterior (Photo by: Eye Ubiquitous/UIG via Getty Images)
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The bureau does not publicly disclose its overall income, or detail where the money is spent. The Foreign Ministry insists the bureau's assets are not the king's personal wealth.

Despite the monarchy's wealth, King Bhumibol was the keen proponent of a "sufficiency economy" philosophy - known in Thai as a "just-enough economy," or the idea of moderation and self-reliance, which drew on Buddhist teachings.

REVERED BY MANY

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.

Thailand has lese-majeste laws that impose long prison terms for insulting the monarchy. The laws have been enforced harshly as the establishment sought to control new, less deferential political forces and as dissent has found avenues of expression through social media.

Prayuth is a staunch royalist and under his government there has been a surge in prosecutions and tougher sentences for lese-majeste.

King Bhumibol himself said in a 2005 speech that he was open to criticism and those jailed for offending him should be released, but that did not stem the rising number of cases in the troubled years since.

The country faces an uncertain future. The vast majority of Thais have lived only under Bhumibol.

His presumed 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. (Reporting by Bangkok Bureau; Editing by Amy Sawitta Lefevre, Alex Richardson, Bill Tarrant.)

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