BANGKOK - Thailand Saturday celebrated national day and the birthday of its king, Bhumipol Adulyadej, with tributes and ceremonies, but concerns over the 88-year-old monarch’s health remain.
Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha led national day celebrations amid thousands of people at the Sanam Luang park, paying tribute to Thailand’s revered and respected monarch.
The evening event, highlighted by candle lights and fireworks, came at the end of a day of official celebrations.
Throughout Thailand, celebrations varied from the giving of alms to Buddhist monks, to local ceremonies marked by officials and communities.
Absent this year was the king’s nationwide address, amid increasing concerns over his fragile health, as he marked his 88th year – 65 years as monarch – the world’s longest reigning monarch.
Carl Thayer, a political scientist from Australia’s University of New South Wales, said Bhumipol has played a crucial role in unifying Thailand.
"The current king has kept the monarchy respected. He’s been such a dominant figure of unity in Thailand that under the present circumstances whoever is his successor will have a major task to try to get the prestige of the king and have the monarchy can still be seen as a unifying force in Thailand," Thayer said.
But concerns over Bhumipol’s health have risen in recent weeks after he appeared frail during his most recent appearance before the general public on Sept 1.
Debate over the monarchy has been increasingly suppressed by Thai governments – both the elected and military government that came to power last year – on the application of Thailand’s rigid Lese Majeste laws, that outlaw defaming the monarchy, with many now facing lengthy prison sentences.
In recent months, the Thai military has used the laws as part of investigations of people, including former members of the Royal House, as well as military and police officials.
Royalists this week staged protests after U.S. Ambassador Glyn Davies, speaking to foreign reporters, criticized the “unprecedented” lengthy prison sentences imposed under the law.
In recent days the local publisher of the international edition of the New York Times refused to print articles about the Crown Property Bureau, which manages the financial affairs of the Royal Family.
Earlier, the same publisher deleted a story from the front page focused on Thailand’s weak economy and the outlook under the military. The story had briefly mentioned the royal family.
But despite the concerns over Bhumipol’s health, little public discussion has occurred on the monarchy after his reign.
Bhumipol’s only son, 63-year-old Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, is the heir apparent to the throne. Public efforts by the government are being made to promote the crown prince, who is often seen as distant from the Thai people. .
Analysts say Vajiralongkorn faces significant challenges to match the strong moral authority his father has been able to establish over the six decades of his reign.