BANGKOK• • Hundreds of orange- robed monks led ceremonies yesterday marking 70 years since Thailand's King Bhumibol Adulyadej ascended the throne, as anxiety grows over the health of the ailing leader.
The 88-year-old king is the world's longest-serving monarch and is seen as a unifying force in a nation bitterly divided along political lines.
However, King Bhumibol is hospital-bound, and underwent a heart operation on Tuesday, following months of treatment for various health problems. He has not been seen in public for months.
His health is of grave concern to Thais, who revere the King and see him as a constant in a turbulent country that has seen numerous coups and repeated rounds of deadly political violence.
Hundreds of well-wishers gathered outside the Grand Palace in Bangkok early yesterday as a line of 770 monks began a day of celebrations with an alms-giving ceremony.
"I want to make merit for the King to encourage him to have good health. That's how I can show loyalty to him. Even though he can't see it, that's fine," said 68-year-old Bangkok resident Chonmanee Smativat. "I want him to know that we all love him."
Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha and members of the Cabinet, along with Bangkok residents of all ages, donned yellow shirts. Yellow is the King's official colour. Many of the shirts were emblazoned with slogans reading: "We Love the King."
In addition to the Buddhist ceremony at the Grand Palace, religious ceremonies were also held by worshippers of Islam, Christianity, Hinduism and Sikhism at different places in the capital yesterday.
Banks also saw queues of people eager to buy commemorative 70-baht notes. The banknotes were sold at 100 baht (S$3.84) each and the sale was limited to two banknotes per person. Despite the limit, they sold out at many bank branches just hours after the sale began.
US President Barack Obama and Britain's Queen Elizabeth II, who has been on the throne for six fewer years than King Bhumibol, both congratulated the Thai king on the milestone.
King Bhumibol, who is formally known as Rama IX of the Chakri dynasty, ascended the throne on June 9, 1946, after his brother was found dead from a gunshot wound at a Bangkok palace - a death that the King would describe decades later in a BBC documentary as "very mysterious".
Most Thais have known no other monarch.
The King earned the adoration of millions through his work in public health and rural development.
"The King travelled up and down the country and met the people. He heard and fixed our problems and that is why we love him," said noodle vendor Yaovapha Thaitae, who works near Siriraj Hospital, where the King is being treated.
Colonel Winthai Suvaree, a spokesman for the National Council for Peace and Order, said: "The relationship between Thais and the King is deep, more than one can actually begin to explain."
Analysts attribute Thailand's political conflict to a scramble behind the scenes for power by the Thai elite to secure their future once the King's reign draws to an end. His anointed successor is Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, but he has yet to draw the same level of devotion as his father.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, THE NATION/ASIA NEWS NETWORK