Bangkok (AP/UNB) — Thailand began its first day in 70 years without a king on Friday in a profound state of mourning, with people across the shaken nation dressed in black following the death of the world’s longest-reigning monarch, Bhumibol Adulyadej.
The 88-year-old king had spent much of the last decade hospitalized and the momentous news, announced in a palace statement Thursday, had long been both anticipated and feared. But the nation remained stable and life continued largely as usual with most shops, banks and tourist sites open.
In Bangkok, residents began lining the streets where the king’s body was expected to pass Friday afternoon in a royal procession from Siriraj hospital to the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, or Wat Phra Kaew, which is located on the grounds of the ornate Grand Palace.
“It is a great loss for Thai people,” said Siwanart Phra-Anan, on office worker in the financial district. “His Majesty will be in Thai people’s heart forever.”
“I’m lost for words because since I was born, I had him as a father of the nation and he unified us,” said another, Siwanee Varikornsakul. “I’ve never been in this situation before. I don’t know what to say. My heart is numb.”
Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha said late Thursday that Bhumibol’s son, Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, will succeed the king under the constitution. But he said the prince had asked for more time to mourn with the nation before ascending the throne. No date has been set for his coronation.
The government announced a one-year mourning period and a 30-day moratorium on state events, and all public offices and schools will fly flags at half-staff for 30 days. But businesses, tourist attractions and public transport were to remain open Friday because of the government’s desire not to hurt the sputtering economy.
“The stock market, investments, other businesses should not stop. Do not try to let the country lose its credibility, especially in the case of impact on the stock exchange,” Prayuth said.
Television channels were running non-stop footage devoted to the life of the king, who was deeply revered and held up as a unifying figure in the politically fractious country despite two coups in the last decade alone.
Most Thais have seen no other king in their lifetime and thought of Bhumibol, who reigned for 70 years, as their father and the embodiment of goodness and godliness.
Although a constitutional monarch, he wielded enormous political power and served as a unifying figure during Thailand’s numerous political crises. But in recent years, he suffered from a variety of illnesses that affected his kidneys, brain, lungs, heart and blood. He remained publicly detached from recent political upheavals, including the 2014 coup that brought Prayuth, an army general, to power.
“Since I was young I saw him work really hard, and now it’s hard to explain. I feel numb inside,” said Danaiwut Wiroonpiti, 26, a photographer who was crying outside the Grand Palace on Thursday. “He’s the center of all Thai people. It’s like we lost the main pillar of our lives, the person who holds us together. I can’t hold my tears.”
Portraits of Bhumibol displayed in most Thai homes and businesses generally depict him in arduous travels to remote villages, where he often went to see the situation of his subjects first hand.
But recently, whenever Bhumibol appeared in public, he was in a wheelchair, waving feebly at his subjects. Even those rare appearances stopped as he became confined to the hospital.
On Sunday, the palace announced his health had become “unstable,” and on Wednesday, Vajiralongkorn rushed back from Germany, Prayuth canceled a trip abroad and royal family members began gathering at Siriraj Hospital.
He died a little before 4 p.m. on Thursday, the palace said. His death was announced three hours later in a broadcast carried simultaneously by all TV stations.
“Even though the board of doctors has closely monitored and treated him to the best of its abilities, the king’s condition never improved,” the palace said in a statement. It said he passed away peacefully.
“He is now in heaven and may be looking over Thai citizens from there,” Prayuth said in a statement. “He was a king that was loved and adored by all. The reign of the king has ended and his kindness cannot be found anywhere else.”
Messages of condolences poured in from across the world.
“With a creative spirit and a drive for innovation, he pioneered new technologies that have rightfully received worldwide acclaim,” President Barack Obama said. “His majesty leaves a legacy of care for the Thai people that will be cherished by future generations.”
French President Francois Hollande hailed the king for “exceptional human qualities … his profound sense of justice, his care for modernity and sustainable development.” Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi described him as “one of the tallest leaders of our times.”
Bhumibol Adulyadej (pronounced poo-mee-pon ah-dun-yaa-det) became king in 1946. He anchored the Southeast Asian country through violent upheavals at home and communist revolutions next door with a blend of majesty and a common touch.
There is great concern about the succession, since Vajiralongkorn has not earned the same respect as his father.
Government spokesman Sansern Kaewkamnerd said for the next 30 days all TV and radio stations, including online media, will broadcast the same programs provided by a government-controlled pool. He did not specify foreign TV channels in the rule, but on Thursday night all channels on the country’s main satellite TV service, including BBC and CNN, were replaced by the pool footage.