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Thailand's King Bhumibol Adulyadej Dies At 88


Now to Thailand where the only king most of the country has ever known is dead. He died today at the age of 88. He had been sick for a number of years. As Michael Sullivan reports from Bangkok, he was the longest-serving monarch in the world.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: As the end drew near, hundreds of King Bhumibol Adulyadej's loyal subjects gathered outside the hospital today, saying prayers for the man who'd been their monarch since 1946.


UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting in Thai).

SULLIVAN: According to a statement from the palace, he died shortly before 4:00 p.m. local time. But the official announcement didn't come until several hours later.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking Thai).

SULLIVAN: Why did it take so long - maybe because it's hard for the ruling military to explain to a people who've known no other king for their entire lives that he was gone. And after the announcement, at the hospital, more prayers and song and tears.


UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Praying in Thai).

SULLIVAN: It's hard to exaggerate the king's presence here, a man whose picture hangs in almost every house, every office and every school in the country and has for more than half a century.

MICHAEL MONTESANO: I think his greatest achievement needs to be counted as the survival and revival of the Thai monarchy.

SULLIVAN: Michael Montesano is a research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore reached via Skype.

MONTESANO: The fact that the monarchy became such a central part of Thai life by the 1970s and 1980s and has remained so for so long would have astonished people who were thinking about this king at the beginning of his reign.

SULLIVAN: But he surprised them and turned his efforts to improving the lot of his people, in particular the rural poor, helping turn the country into one of the most economically vibrant in the region, at the same time fostering national unity at a time when the Cold War was ripping apart Thailand's neighbors, a unity that's been absent since the king's health began to fade over a decade ago, a period marked by weak democratic institutions and two military coups in the past 10 years.

In a televised speech this evening, the man who led the latest coup two years ago, General-turned-Prime-Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, said the country would observe a mourning period. King Bhumibol's son, Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, is the heir apparent, though he does not come close to commanding the respect and adulation enjoyed by his father, says the King's unofficial biographer, Paul Handly.

PAUL HANDLEY: The prince is unknown in terms of what his interest in this - his country. I think he's lived under the shadow of his father for so long that even if he had some ideas, he wouldn't be able to put them out.

SULLIVAN: Thailand's strict lese majeste laws prohibit any serious discussion of the succession or of the royals in general with strict jail terms for any who are perceived to have insulted the royals in any way.

There is no word yet on whether the king's death will cause the ruling junta to postpone a general election scheduled for next year. For NPR News, I'm Michael Sullivan in Bangkok. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michael Sullivan is NPR's Senior Asia Correspondent. He moved to Hanoi to open NPR's Southeast Asia Bureau in 2003. Before that, he spent six years as NPR's South Asia correspondent based in but seldom seen in New Delhi.