A pall of uncertainty hung over normally joyous celebrations of the Thai king’s birthday yesterday after the revered monarch failed to appear for ceremonies because of an illness that has shocked a nation reeling from political turmoil.
The ailing, 81-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej was scheduled to take part in a birthday ceremony at the Grand Palace’s throne hall but it was canceled because of an illness that also prevented him from delivering his annual birthday speech on Thursday, local media said.
The much-revered constitutional monarch has been a cornerstone of stability, stepping in to defuse political crises and halt bloodshed during his six decades on the throne.
Many Thais had been eagerly awaiting his address in hopes it might point a way out of political turbulence that in the past two weeks has included a seven-day seizure of Bangkok’s two airports by protesters and the ouster of the government.
Early yesterday, hundreds of Thais gathered on a field outside the ornate, walled palace to give alms to 282 Buddhist monks as a way of conveying their best wishes to the king.
“I am worried. I think all Thais are worried. Thailand needs him. He is the only one who can make people on both sides realize they are ruining the country. He is the only one who can unify Thailand,” said Rojana Duangkaew, a 28-year-old pharmacist, shortly after the king sent his son and daughter to represent him at Thursday’s event.
Princess Sirindhorn said the king was weak and suffering from bronchitis and inflammation of the esophagus but that his “condition is not serious.”
The king’s last public appearance was on Wednesday when he looked haggard while inspecting royal troops. He spoke briefly, reading hoarsely from a text, and seemed barely able to keep his head up.
Last year, the king was hospitalized for more than three weeks for symptoms of a stroke and a colon infection. He also has a history of heart trouble.
The question of royal succession has long weighed heavily on Thai politics, and ordinary Thais, but probably never more than now.
Although a constitutional monarch, Bhumibol built up his great power through decades of work on behalf of the poor, charisma and political astuteness.
His 56-year-old son, Prince Vajiralongkorn, has nowhere near the king’s talents, stature or moral authority. There is concern that Vajiralongkorn, who has married three times and fathered seven children, will have difficulty living up to Bhumibol’s record of diligence.
Sirindhorn, 53, who could technically also succeed her father, is talented and highly popular but said to lack political savvy. There is also almost no historical precedent for a woman becoming the country’s ruler.
The royal crisis could not have come at worse time for Thailand, as it struggles to recover from an anti-government campaign by the People’s Alliance for Democracy.
It started with mass protests in late 2005 to oust then prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was removed in a 2006 military coup amid accusations of gross corruption and attempting to undermine the monarchy. The coup is widely believed to have been backed by the palace.
Thaksin’s supporters won elections last December. But the protest alliance rejected the outcome, saying the new government was a proxy for Thaksin, and began another round of agitation that culminated with the seizure of Bangkok’s two airports.