Anxious Thais don pink for ailing King Bhumibol

Well-wishers praying yesterday for Thailand's King Bhumibol Adulyadej at Siriraj Hospital in Bangkok, where the monarch is being treated. He has battled a series of ailments in recent years and has not been seen in public since January.
Well-wishers praying yesterday for Thailand's King Bhumibol Adulyadej at Siriraj Hospital in Bangkok, where the monarch is being treated. He has battled a series of ailments in recent years and has not been seen in public since January.PHOTO: REUTERS

They flock to hospital, temples and Grand Palace and go online to pray for his recovery

With palms joined in prayer, a pink-shirted woman mouthed a Buddhist chant while staring intently at a particular upper-floor window in Bangkok's Siriraj Hospital.

Like many others around her yesterday, she was willing a swift recovery for King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the subject of a recent ominous-sounding announcement.

The world's longest-reigning monarch has battled a series of ailments, including lung infection, in recent years and has not been seen in public since January.

Of late, the Royal Household Bureau has increased the frequency of announcements bearing updates on his health. These usually declared an improvement after he received a particular treatment. The statement on Sunday evening, however, said his condition remained unstable after he underwent dialysis.

Anxious Thais have been turning to temples as well as online to offer get-well wishes for the King.

Yesterday, in response to a social media drive, many turned out in pink - considered an auspicious colour for King Bhumibol, who is regarded as a demigod in the country and often referred to as the father of the nation.

After prostrating herself before a picture of the monarch at Siriraj Hospital, where King Bhumibol is being treated, 50-year-old seamstress Maikaew Yongcharoenchai said she was disheartened when she heard the news. "I want to seek blessings, to help him recover."

Over at the capital's Grand Palace, where a hall has been opened to receive well-wishers, a regular stream of people turned up to make flower offerings and bow before the King's portrait. An official told The Straits Times that it receives more than 1,000 visitors a day.

On the stock exchange, Thailand's SET Index shed 3.15 per cent on Monday and  1.02 per cent at the close of trading yesterday.

News about the royal family is tightly controlled in Asean's second-largest economy, where insults or defamatory comments against the king, queen, heir apparent and regent earn not just social disapproval but also a possible jail sentence of up to 15 years on each count.

Since the military took power through a 2014 coup, the number of people prosecuted for lese majeste has soared.

No other member of the Thai royal family commands the same level of influence and affection as King Bhumibol.

Uncertainty over the impending transition has given a sharp edge to the country's deepening political divisions, which have pitted Bangkok elites against an emerging middle class which has constantly voted in politicians accused by the former of being corrupt and populist.

Increasingly, questions are being raised about the type of democracy that Thais can accept, says Thailand-based scholar David Streckfuss.

Following a tightly supervised referendum in August, Thailand is set to promulgate a Constitution that will create what critics say is a recipe for unstable coalition governments even if elections are held again.

In sharp contrast, most Thais - who have lived through a revolving door of governments regularly upended by military coups - have known only one king all their lives. 

"I hope he can live up to 100 years and beyond if possible," says retiree Ratsamee Porntreesat, who marked her 60th birthday yesterday by wearing a bright pink blouse and praying for the King.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 12, 2016, with the headline 'Anxious Thais don pink for ailing King Bhumibol'. Print Edition | Subscribe