BANGKOK (AP) — The people of Thailand celebrated King Bhumibol Adulyadej's 87th birthday Friday with both joy and trepidation, as the ailing monarch failed to make an expected public appearance at a time when there is already growing concern over how the country will manage a smooth succession at the eventual end of his reign.
An announcement issued by the palace late Thursday night said the king's doctors advised he should not attend the main morning ceremony for his birthday because of poor health. His son, the heir apparent, substituted for him at an afternoon religious ceremony.
The king has been hospitalized since early October when he had his gall bladder removed. His absence, and the cancellation of the ceremony, did not come as a shock to most people, as the monarch has been visibly ailing for the several years. The king spent almost four years in the hospital until leaving in August last year. When he was admitted in 2009, doctors said he was suffering from a lung inflammation, though he also suffers from a variety of ailments usually associated with age.
Thais hold great affection for Bhumibol (poo-MEE-pohn), who took the throne in 1946. But his fading from public life and the palace's perceived role in the nation's raucous and sometimes violent political battles that started in 2006 have diminished the reputation of the royal institution in recent years, undermining what had previously been near-universal respect for the monarchy.
Next in line is Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn. In recent weeks, members of the family of his wife, Princess Srirasm, have been arrested on charges of abusing their connections for financial benefit. Vajiralongkorn, 62, does not command the same respect and affection as the king, who was closely and actively involved in his country's development efforts.
The prince appeared to be the only member of the king's immediate family to attend any of the major ceremonies marking the monarch's birthday.
Vajiralongkorn was accompanied by his daughter from the second of his three marriages for a religious ceremony at the country's most sacred temple, Wat Phra Kaew. Scheduled live television coverage of the event was canceled at the last minute, though excerpts were televised later on the nightly royal news.
The public and senior officials flocked to public ceremonies around the kingdom, the most elaborate in the capital Bangkok, where Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha was one of many dignitaries who paid his respects in front of a giant portrait of King Bhumibol in full royal regalia.
The crowd at Bangkok's Sanam Luang, a field outside the old Royal Palace, was entertained by fireworks and elephants festooned in lights, and lit candles to show their devotion to the king. Many were festive, waving at the cameras scanning the crowd. However, the VIPs at the front of the crowd, including from the military — which staged a coup in May against an elected government and remain the country's power-brokers — looked unusually grim.
The king's birthday has usually been an occasion to boost public morale. Of special interest were nationally broadcast speeches he used to make the day before his birthday, which were seen as the best gauge of his positions on Thailand's development — given as moral guidance because as a constitutional monarch he is not supposed to be involved in politics.
There was no pre-birthday broadcast Thursday.