An annual time of joy in Thailand has been transformed into a period of unease as most ceremonies marking the birthday of King Bhumibol Adulyadej have been cancelled or postponed this year. The king, who will turn 82 on Saturday, is scheduled to appear in public on his birthday for an audience with members of the Cabinet and parliament, but will forgo his yearly speech to the nation, review of the Royal Guards and most of the other pomp and pageantry that usually accompanies the celebrations. The Dec. 5 outing will be only his second public appearance since being admitted to the hospital for what doctors said was a respiratory infection on September 19. The first was in mid-November for a religious ceremony at Siriraj Hospital in Bangkok, where he has been receiving treatment, during which he was confined to a wheelchair.
The health of King Bhumibol, the longest-reigning monarch in the world, is a sensitive subject in Thailand. "Most Thais alive have never known any other king,'' said Dominic Faulder, a veteran Bangkok-based journalist who edited The King of Thailand in World Focus, a compendium of media coverage of King Bhumibol and his 63 years on the throne. Illness or any sign of the monarch's mortality provokes a deep-seated fear of the unknown in many Thais, who regard the king as semi-divine.
Adding onto their concern is the fact that Thailand is today more deeply divided politically and socially than at any time since its communist insurgency ended in the early 1980s. In the past three years, the country has been rocked by demonstrations, a military coup, an airport takeover and riots. Since the early 1970s, King Bhumibol, a constitutional monarch, has served as a unifying figure and stabilizing force in Thai society, intervening on occasion to stop bloodshed between the military and democracy demonstrators and defusing political tensions.
During the most recent bout of political warfare, however, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and his followers accused the king's chief adviser, Privy Council Chairman Prem Tinsulanonda, of masterminding the military putsch that toppled him in September 2006. They have demanded that the powers of Prem, who has denied the charge. and other "palace elites" be reduced. Anti-Thaksin forces have in turn accused Thaksin of disloyalty to the monarchy. Thaksin has denied the accusations, and to show respect for the king on his birthday, called on his supporters to cancel massive anti-government street demonstrations they had planned for this month.
Meanwhile, thousands of well wishers turn up at Siriraj Hospital each day to pray for the king's health. Doctors have insisted that the king has improved and he is not in anything approaching a serious condition. But his long stay at the hospital and continued absence from public view has fueled unease, speculation and rumors. Recently, the government arrested four people for allegedly spreading rumors about the king's health on the internet, which, it claims, caused a stock market sell-off in October. Reporters Without Borders, an international media watchdog group, has said those arrested are scapegoats and the charges are baseless.