Awestruck crowds greet Thai king on his birthday

More than 100 000 people lined the streets around Bangkok’s glittering Grand Palace on Wednesday to cheer Thailand’s revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej as he celebrated his 80th birthday.

The crowds, dressed in yellow shirts and waving flags emblazoned with a royal emblem, lined the broad tree-fringed avenues leading to the palace as the king drove by in a pale yellow Rolls Royce.

Yellow is the colour that Thais associate with Mondays, the day of the week when the king was born.

Millions of people across the country have worn yellow shirts every Monday since last year, when the king marked his 60th year on the throne as the world’s longest-serving monarch.

Many people on the streets also wore pink to symbolise their wish for the king’s good health, inspired by a pink blazer worn by the king as he was discharged from hospital last month after nearly four weeks in bed to treat problems with the blood flow to his brain.

The king’s motorcade drove him through a 5km stretch of Bangkok’s historic district to the Grand Palace, a sprawling compound of gilded castles and temples on the banks of the Chao Phraya River.

Police said more than 100 000 people lined the streets, while 20 000 of the nation’s elite gathered inside the palace compound where the king sat on the balcony of his throne hall, dressed in full regalia, before members of his family, senior government officials and all of the military’s top brass.

After a 21-gun salute, the nation’s top government officials and the king’s only son Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn delivered speeches praising the monarch’s work to develop the country.

In brief remarks to the crowd, the king read a prepared statement to thank his supporters and to call for national unity in the wake of last year’s military coup, which toppled the elected government of prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

“Our country will be peaceful and stable, with all key institutions working harmoniously and complementing each other, with full awareness of their duty to each individual person,” he said.

“Then our country will become prosperous, stable and developed,” he said.

Urging national unity has been a theme in the king’s recent speeches, including his address to the nation the night before, as the country heads into divisive elections on December 23.

The prince and heir apparent, who was once described by the queen as “a bit of a Don Juan”, told his father that he would walk a narrow path and fulfill his duties.

“I would like to make an oath, in all sincerity, to promise that I will be honest, restrained and determined to carry out my duties,” he said. “I will refrain from things that should be avoided.”

King Bhumibol is the only monarch most Thais can remember, making him a rare figure of unity in a nation that has seen 20 prime ministers, 16 Constitutions and more than a dozen coups during his reign.

Students are taught that respect for the king, patriotism and religious devotion are closely intertwined, giving him an almost divine status in Thai society.

People from around the country began filling the sidewalks before dawn to stake out choice positions to catch a glimpse of the king as he passed in his motorcade.

Dee Thuanmuanwai, a 72-year-old from the north-eastern province of Nakhon Ratchasima, travelled through the night to claim a spot on the pavement at 5am.

“I am so overwhelmed to see him. My days are numbered, with not much time left in life, but I wish him a long life,” Dee said.

Many in the crowd were awestruck as the motorcade passed.

“This is my first time to see him.
I am speechless. As [a] Thai national, I wish him a long life,” said Janthana Uthaipibool, a 35-year-old from the outskirts of Bangkok.

In the evening, crowds were expected to again gather for a candlelight vigil outside the Grand Palace, where the king and his family were to hold religious ceremonies at some of the nation’s holiest shrines. - AFP

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