All Eyes Are On Thai King’s Health

The monsoon rains had pounded Bangkok for nearly three hours Monday night, but by 11 pm well-wishers were still trickling into Siriraj Hospital to show their support for the country’s ailing King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

Four or five people wearing yellow shirts ‑ a color that symbolizes Monday, the day the king was born ‑ lay sleeping under a makeshift tent in the hospital’s courtyard. Nearby some fought the rain to bow before a shrine at a statue of Prince Mahidol of Songkhla, the king’s father.

“I love the king in my heart,” said Sasina Sumjit, a 32-year-old Muslim from southern Thailand who stared into the courtyard with two friends under a covered walkway. “He is in the hearts of all Thai people.”

Earlier in the day, before the heavy downpour, thousands in yellow shirts had come here waving royal flags, holding pictures of the king and singing royal anthems. Ambassadors, celebrities, politicians and royal family members also showed up in a scene that has become all too familiar over the past few years.

Bhumibol was rushed to the hospital on Saturday after complaining of weakness in his right side. A magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) test detected inadequate blood flows to the left side of his brain, it was announced.

The king’s health has been a subject of intense speculation for years now, although questions of succession have only recently been discussed more openly. In July, a nasty false-rumor campaign spread through the capital claiming heir apparent Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn had passed away, followed by the release of videos painting certain royal family members in a negative light.

Then last month, a YouTube video popped up claiming that Privy Council President Prem Tinsulanonda had orchestrated the September 2006 coup against Bhumibol’s wishes and desired to usurp the throne. Because the country’s strict lese-majeste laws only cover the king, queen, heir apparent and regent, the government could not block the video, which has now been seen about 60,000 times.

It’s nearly impossible to tell the seriousness of the king’s latest trip to the hospital. This trip appears unplanned, whereas his hernia operations in 2002 and 2003 and an operation to relieve lumbar spinal stenosis last year were both scheduled a few months in advance.

Bhumibol has faced several other surgeries since undergoing two minor heart bypass operations in 1995. He spent a night in the hospital in 1997 for an irregular heartbeat, and two years after that he had surgery for hemorrhoids that were causing exhaustion and a loss of blood.

In 1999, doctors found a benign tumor on his colon and removed a tiny section of non-malignant tissue from a tract in his digestive system. Physicians also told the king to wear a back brace and rest for three months after he fell and worsened the pain in his back.

The king also had surgery in 2002 to remove a growth on his prostate gland. Doctors said he had taken medication since 1993 to relieve a benign prostatic hyperplasia, an enlargement of the prostate common in elderly men.

The king will turn 80 on December 5. His 61-year reign over Thailand is longer than any current monarch in the world. In 1996, the year that marked his 50th year on the throne, he quipped in his annual birthday speech that he would reign for 100 years.

“Anyhow, this meeting will have to take place; it will take place when I am 117 years and 364 days old,” the king said at the time. “I don't know who will be present; anyone who lasts that long can come. At that time, when asked what the past fifty years were like, that person should be able to tell, or maybe he would have to consult with others because by that time he might be senile, not making any sense because it would be a long time.”

Last year, after the surgery on his spine, the king reassured the public during his birthday speech that he was mentally fit.

“I did not stand up to acknowledge [the prime minister’s] well-wishing gesture since my physical strength did not permit, although mentally I am fit enough,” the king said. “I hope you understand that. Physical strength has its use.”

Age has become an issue for the cabinet appointed by the military after the coup. The he average age of the cabinet is 63. In April, Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont spent three days in the hospital for a medical checkup. At a recent cabinet meeting Deputy Prime Minister Paiboon Wattanasiritham, 66, suffered a heart attack. He is now recovering.

The king made old age a central theme of his birthday speech last year. “Old age can be an advantage in terms of accumulated knowledge and experiences,” he said. “Young people who look down on the elderly are in fact inferior themselves. Old people who well maintain their intelligence and moral integrity can help the country prosper.”

A palace statement Monday evening said that Bhumibol’s condition had improved. He could now sit in a chair and eat, the palace said.

It remains unclear how much longer the king will need to stay in hospital. But as long as he’s hospitalized, his subjects will continue to stop by, praying that he will somehow sit on the throne for another 100 years and beyond.