King Bhumibol calls for unity after year of instability traggered by 2006 coup.
|Many attending the celebrations wore yellow as a sign of their devotion to the king [AFP]|
Hundreds of thousands of people across Thailand have been celebrating the birthday of the country’s king, the world’s longest reigning monarch.
King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s 80th birthday comes amid growing worries over his frail health and questions over the royal succession.
Such questions were however were swept aside on Wednesday amid festivities, prayers and a nationwide sea of yellow – the colour that symbolises devotion to the monarch.
The centrepiece of Wednesday’s celebrations was the Grand Palace in Bangkok, where tens of thousands of people in yellow shirts and waving yellow flags gathered for a glimpse of the king.
|Most Thais have known no other king and are
uncertain about a future without him [AFP]
Appearing on the balcony of the ceremonial Throne Hall the crowd, many of whom had travelled from across Thailand, shouted out “Long Live the King!”
Bhumibol’s birthday is a national holiday in Thailand and has increasingly become a day of tribute to the perhaps the most influential figure in modern Thai history.
Across the country people planned to show respect for the monarch by saying prayers and performing merit-making ceremonies that typically involve freeing captive animals, including birds, turtles and fish.
Although he is a constitutional king with no formal political role, he is regarded as a key to Thailand‘s stability and is seen as moral authority by most Thais.
During his six decades on the throne the king has seen more than a dozen military coups and constitutions and two dozen different prime ministers.
“He’s been a unifying monarch in times of crisis especially,” political analyst Thitinan Pongsudhirak told Al Jazeera.
“At the same time, there are a lot of anxieties and apprehension about the twilight of the king’s glorious reign.”
Al Jazeera’s Bangkok correspondent, Selina Downes, says for that reason the issue of succession is not openly discussed in Thailand, although quiet debate has begun about who should succeed him.
The king himself has never publicly commented on his successor although his son, Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, is the heir apparent.
“If things go normally, the prince will be the next king of Thailand,” national assembly member Gothom Areeya told Al Jazeera.
Wearing a uniform all the time is boring
“But the king has what we call a ‘royal prerogative’ to choose a successor. He may wish to install the Crown Princess.”
Worries about the succession intensified earlier this year when the king was hospitalised after suffering what turned out to have been a minor stroke.
He now moves about with the aid of a walking frame.
During a nationally televised speech on the eve of Wednesday’s celebrations his voice was weak and his breathing laboured, showing his increasing frailty.
In the address he called for national unity among Thais as the country heads into divisive general elections later this month, but also showed a sense of humour addressing his recent penchant for wearing bright blazers.
In recent weeks he has stepped out in pink, baby blue, light green, lavender, red, and other bright sport coats, each time setting a new fashion trend among Thais.
“Wearing a uniform all the time is boring,” he said, explaining his recent wardrobe.
“I never thought I would live to be 80… We are old now. I don’t want to dress boring.”