Well-wishers keep up vigil outside Bangkok hospital, await news on King Bhumibol

Supporters of Thailand's King Bhumibol Adulyadej pray at the compounds of Siriraj Hospital, where the king is being treated, in Bangkok on Oct 13, 2016.
Supporters of Thailand's King Bhumibol Adulyadej pray at the compounds of Siriraj Hospital, where the king is being treated, in Bangkok on Oct 13, 2016. PHOTO: AFP

BANGKOK (AFP) - Well-wishers kept up their vigil outside a Bangkok hospital on Thursday (Oct 13), offering prayers for ailing King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

The 88-year-old is the world's longest serving monarch, loved by his people and portrayed by the palace as a guiding light through decades of political turmoil, coups and violent unrest.

King Bhumibol has been ill and hospital-bound for most of the last two years, and his already frail health has taken a turn for the worse in the past week.

On Sunday and Wednesday, the palace released two unusually grave health statements, saying the King was on a ventilator, battling kidney problems and his condition was "not stable".

That sparked stock market jitters and prompted crowds of anxious devotees to gather outside the riverside hospital in Bangkok where he is being treated. The baht and stocks slipped further on Thursday.

Early on Thursday, around 150 people were holding prayers outside the hospital, many dressed in pink in the belief that the colour will bring the King good luck.

"I wanted to be close to him to pray for him because I love him," Mr Anon Lim, 58, from northern Uttaradit province, told AFP. "He has done a lot for Thailand and for us."

Thais have had many years to get used to the prospect of no longer having King Bhumibol as their king but his passing will still be a huge shock to a nation.

He is revered as a demigod by many, seen as a serene leader above the din of the kingdom's notoriously fractious political scene.

He built up a reputation for criss-crossing the nation to visit the rural poor and sometimes intervened to stop key moments of political violence - although other times he stayed silent and approved most of the army's many coups during his reign.

His 64-year-old son, Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, has yet to attain his father's widespread popularity.

Social media has lit up since Wednesday, with the hashtag #longlivetheking trending and people flocking to send in their digital prayers.

Princess Ubolratana, the king's eldest daughter, posted a picture of a yellow heart on a pink background with the words "Neecha Loves the King" on her Instagram feed early Thursday morning. Neecha is the online handle she uses.

Bhutanese King Jigme Khesar Namgel Wangchuk, a fellow Buddhist, also posted on his Facebook that special prayers would be conducted "in all the sacred temples throughout the country" for King Bhumibol.

The Thai king's health is a sensitive subject and palace officials maintain tight control over news about his condition. A harsh lese majeste law also makes public discussion of the succession all but impossible.

Analysts say anxiety over King Bhumibol's health has exacerbated the past decade of political conflict in Thailand, as competing elites wrestle for influence.

The military seized power in 2014, their 12th successful coup since absolute monarchy was abolished in 1932.

They said their putsch was to end political corruption and restore stability to the polarised nation but many inside the kingdom saw it as a move to ensure generals were in charge during any upcoming succession.

The military has deep links with the palace and long portrayed itself as the ultimate defender of the monarchy. Prosecutions under Thailand's royal defamation law have surged since the takeover.

In a briefing note to clients this week, risk consultancy firm BMI Research said the king's passing would likely create "more financial market volatility as well as a period of economic gridlock amid an extended official mourning period".

However, the note added that any succession was likely to be "relatively smooth with the junta maintaining a tight grip on power".