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Asia Today ISSN 1861-4604 Tuesday, May 22, 2018

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Uncertain times for Thailand after King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s death

The king, who ascended to the throne in 1946

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BANGKOK, Thailand - Thailand was plunged into grief following the death of the world's longest-reigning monarch King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who died in a hospital on Thursday. The ailing monarch was 88-years-old.

During his 70-year reign, the king, who ascended to the throne in 1946, intervened on several occasions to bring stability to a sharply divided nation. His death is expected to bring uncertain times for the country, where he was revered with near god-like devotion.

A pall of gloom hung over the country as thousands of Thais lined up along the route the body of King Adulyadej will travel in Bangkok to get a glimpse of their leader. 

His body will rest at the Grand Palace where relatives will pour water over his hand, part of a Buddhist bathing ceremony.

Security was tight on Friday in the capital's old quarter of palaces, temples and ministries with soldiers at checkpoints, government offices and intersections. Most people in the capital and in towns across the country dressed in black, white or grey, but shops were open for business. At the Grand Palace, thousands of mourners, some weeping openly, lined up to kneel before a portrait of the king.

The cabinet declared a government holiday today for mourning, but the Stock Exchange of Thailand and other financial institutions remained open, with Thai stocks rallying following news of the king's death. According to analysts, the king's death had been priced into the market and investors were now rushing in for bargain stocks.

Thailand's Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha has declared a year-long period of mourning for the nation. Flag will fly at half-staff for 30 days and the public has been asked to refrain from holding celebrations during for the next one month. 

"His Majesty was a beloved and revered king," said Prayuth Chan-ocha, head of the military junta that seized power in 2014. "He unified the hearts of all Thais. It is the greatest loss and despair in the lives of all Thais nationwide."

King Adulyadej, who had been keeping unwell for a while, is expected to be succeeded by his son Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkornboy, who has the reputation of being a playboy and does not command the same affection from the people. On Thursday evening, the crown prince unexpectedly said he was not ready to become king and requested more time to grieve the loss of his father, the prime minister told reporters.

Thailand has witnessed political turmoil in recent times with the military taking over in a coup in 2014. Deadly protests, bomb blasts and the face-off between the military and political forces have over the years escalated tensions further. But the Thais did not see their late king as a contributor to the turmoil, but rather a much-needed figure of authority and stability who yielded his power sparingly but decisively, in addition to devoting his life to helping the poor.

Experts, however, believe the king's leadership was especially critical during the height of the Cold War, from the 1950s through the 1970s. 

In Singapore too, the king was remembered. At the Thai embassy here, the flag was at half mast. A book of condolences was also opened at the embassy for people to pay tributes. 

The passing of the monarch also made the United Kingdom amend its travel advice for its citizens visiting the country, asking them to dress appropriately and "respect the feelings and sensitivities" of the Thai people. Meanwhile, the Australian foreign ministry asked its people to "refrain from any behaviour that may be interpreted as festive, disrespectful or disorderly," warning that there may be some disruption of commercial and public services, especially during the next 30 days. The Dutch foreign ministry also reminds travellers to Thailand to avoid any "declarations or discussions critical of the royal family". Tourists were advised to always carry their identity papers with them.

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," U.S. 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."

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