Thailand: A Frail King Greets a Flood-Stricken City

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Apichart Weerawong / AP

Thailand's King Bhumibol Adulyadej is pushed in a wheelchair as he departs Siriraj Hospital for the Grand Palace to attend a ceremony celebrating his birthday in Bangkok on Dec. 5, 2011

In a rare public appearance on Monday, Dec. 5, to mark his 84th birthday, Thailand's King Bhumibol Adulyadej called for an end to political conflicts and asked his subjects to work together to help the millions affected by floods that have devastated the country. Flag-waving crowds, estimated to be in the hundreds of thousands, chanted, "Trong phra charoen!" (Long live the King!) as his motorcade wound its way from a riverside hospital to the golden-spired old Grand Palace in Bangkok, but the celebrations were muted at the request of the King because so many Thais are still suffering.

King Bhumibol, who acceded the throne in 1946 and is the longest-reigning monarch in the world, has made few public appearances since he was hospitalized in September 2009. While palace officials have never detailed the nature of the King's illness, diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks suggest King Bhumibol suffered a stroke at that time. His youngest daughter, Princess Chulabhorn, recently told an interviewer that her father's health had worsened, noting that he lost consciousness at one point and suffered abdominal bleeding after watching reports of the hardships endured by his people as their homes and businesses were destroyed. Dressed in a golden robe on Monday, King Bhumibol was evidently in frail health: he was moved to a gold and red-velvet throne in a wheelchair, from which he read his brief, nationally televised speech before an official audience that included Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and members of her Cabinet.

Had the times been normal, the government would have organized more extensive, pomp-filled festivities to mark this birthday, including a procession of ancient royal barges down the Chao Phraya River. At 84, King Bhumibol has completed seven 12-year astrological cycles, considered highly auspicious in the Buddhist-based belief system prevalent in Thailand and much of Southeast Asia. But with the recent flooding's death toll having reached 666, and with parts of northern Bangkok still underwater, tens of thousands of people still homeless and economic damage estimated to be in the billions of dollars, the King asked that celebrations be simple.

Ironically, the majority of the more than 4,000 royal development projects initiated by the King during his 65 years on the throne have dealt in one way or another with water, including irrigation canals. The endeavors, however, are pilot projects: demonstrations to test theories and ideas. "The water projects I have discussed are only suggestions, not orders. But if the projects are beneficial and cost-effective, please implement them," the King urged during his speech.

After floods inundated Bangkok in 1995, King Bhumibol proposed the building of a large network of canals that would lead to huge holding areas for water runoff, called "monkey cheeks," on the outskirts of the capital. The project was never taken up by successive governments. Prime Minister Yingluck has recruited some water experts who had advised King Bhumibol to serve on a committee tasked with devising a new water-management system for the country that would ensure no repeat of the current disaster. The Prime Minister has said that all of Bangkok will be dry by the beginning of 2012 but that many factories will not be up and running for a few months. Economic growth for 2011 had been forecast at over 4% but is now expected to be only 1.2% to 1.5%.

As is his custom, the King used the occasion of his birthday to pardon prisoners. The 26,000 who received royal clemency did not, however, include former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, Yingluck's older brother. Thaksin, ousted in a military coup in 2006, lives in self-imposed exile rather than serve a two-year prison sentence for abuse of power. In late November, Yingluck's Cabinet reportedly attempted to rewrite the eligibility requirements for a royal pardon so that Thaksin could be included, but it backed down after strong public criticism.

A movement known as the Red Shirts that supports Thaksin and helped elect Yingluck contains some members who are openly opposed to the constitutional monarchy. Until recently, such sentiments were rarely expressed, largely because of harsh lèse-majesté laws but also because most Thais consider the monarchy part of their cultural heritage and respect the work the King has done to try to alleviate poverty. Their reverence was on display on Monday, as thick crowds of Thais, some with tears in their eyes, held aloft portraits of King Bhumibol and cheered and bowed before his motorcade as it slowly weaved its way through the old quarter of Bangkok and back to Siriraj Hospital.