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Syed Nazakat in Bangkok

It was early morning in Bangkok. Mist still hung in the air. Tens of thousands of people in yellow shirts carrying yellow flags packed the streets around the Grand Palace. People have travelled to Bangkok from towns and countryside hoping to catch a glimpse of their beloved King Bhumibol Adulyadej on his 80th birthday. King Bhumibol’s birthday has increasingly become a day of natioal tribute to the man who is regarded as the most influential figure in modern Thai history and the key to the country’s prosperity and stability.

“He is such a good King,” said a young boy, who like others was wearing a yellow shirt. The boy with his family had camped along the path of the King’s motorcade. “I wish him long life and good health.”

People across Thailand have adopted an informal national uniform of wearing yellow shirts or jackets. Yellow represents Monday, the day King Bhumibol was born. Countless other Thais voluntarily wear yellow to publicly express adoration for the King. That is, until last month, when the King was released after nearly four weeks in hospital. He emerged from the hospital wearing a pink blazer and black trousers, and sparked an overnight craze for all things pink, which is now seen as a symbol of the King’s good health.

“I’m old but I don’t want to dress in a boring way,” he said jokingly in his annual address to the nation. 

King Bhumibol was born on Dec 5, 1927, in Cambridge, where his father, Prince Mahidol, was studying medicine at Harvard University. At the age of 19, he became the ninth king of Thailand’s Chakri dynasty. Though the King has no formal political role, he is regarded as the axle that holds the country of 64 million Thais together.

In his six decades on the throne, he has taken an active role in rural development and is respected for his dedication in helping the country’s poor. He has stilled bloody uprisings and battered military coups by using his moral authority to end bloodshed. His vision and statesmanship has been so masterful that in times of crisis Thais invariably turn to one man: King Bhumibol.

Today, a chaotic political situation is hovering over Thailand ahead of divisive elections later this month. Many political analysts expect the elections will likely lead to further polarisation between supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in the countryside, and the royalist military establishment and middle class. In the worst-case scenario, some analysts see Thaksin’s friends and opponents facing off on the streets, making further military intervention inevitable.

That is why more than anybody else, King Bhumibol is concerned about the prevailing political instability in the country.

“If everyone sets their mind to maintaining unity, happiness and contentment will fall to people as individuals and collectively. With this, our national stability will be maintained and developed,” he told the crowd on his birthday speech, seated on a golden throne of Chakri Maha Prasat and dressed in a gold brocade robe.“I’m glad that everyone has come (here) together in unison to give me birthday wishes,” he said.

The comments echoed his televised birthday speech in which the King repeatedly called for national unity. “(We) must be united, like our legs must be united which means one goes forward and one pushes back before moving forward,” he said. “This way, we could walk without falling. Without unity, the country will face disaster,” he warned the nation.

King Bhumibol—a semi-divine figure, whose portrait is hung in almost every Thai home and working place— enjoys great influence among Thais. And this time around too he is making sure that the country should come out from the present political crisis. In an age when kings have gone out of style and the craft of kingship is forgotten, it is the good fortune of Thailand that the present occupant of the Chakri dynasty not only personally worked for the development of the country but has often taken it upon himself to lead his country out of crisis.

“May the power of the Triple Gems and holy spirits protect you all from suffering, danger and make you happy, always,” he concluded his brief birthday speech.

As King Bhumibol waved people goodbye and moved towards his palace, he was joined by Queen Sirikit and the rest of royal family. It was one of his rare public appearances from the balcony of his ceremonial Throne Hall — only the sixth such appearance in his 61-year reign.

Some yards away from the palace, at the street square where a big birthday billboard of the King stands, an old woman like thousand of others hysterically shouted “Long live the King, long live the king!” As we left the street square of Sanam Luang, a melodic music resounded from the other side of the road.

It is party time in Thailand.

(ANN/ 2007)

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