The world's longest reigning monarch is dead. The king of Thailand, Bhumibol Adulyadej, died at age 88 on Thursday, according to the bureau of the royal household. The king had been in poor health for a long time, primarily spending his last years in a Bangkok hospital.
Worries about the king's condition heightened after a Sunday night health bulletin was issued by the palace, stating that his medical team had performed kidney dialysis and replaced a tube used to drain fluid from his lung when his blood pressure dropped, and placed the monarch on a ventilator. Even after the procedures, his condition was "not stable," the palace said.
Hundreds of Thais dressed in pink prayed for the king's recovery Wednesday and Thursday outside Siriraj hospital in Bangkok.
The death of the highly revered monarch is a stunning blow for the kingdom of 67 million people, most of whom have known no other sovereign.
King Bhumibol, also known as Rama IX, came to the throne as an 18-year-old in 1946 after the mysterious shooting death of his 20-year-old brother, King Ananda Mahidol.
Thailand's prime minister, Prayuth Chan-ocha, announced that the heir to the throne has been designated for many years, and the cabinet will inform parliament of the decision.
Government officials in the country will observe one year of mourning starting Friday. Parliament was expected to convene Thursday at 9pm.
The 70th anniversary of his accession was celebrated in Thailand on June 9 with millions of his subjects donning yellow shirts for the day.
Revered in Thailand
Bhumibol Adulyadej was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in the United States, a grandson of one of the Kingdom of Siam's most revered monarchs, Chulalongkorn, or Rama V.
Throughout the last half of the 20th century, Rama IX became the most familiar king Thailand had ever known with the advent of mass media portraying him as a wise and compassionate head of state, working effortlessly to improve the lives of his mostly rural subjects.
The king was revered as a semi-deity in the deeply Buddhist country. His rule provided a bedrock of stability in a country faced with many social and economic challenges, including a fragile democratic system. The kingdom now is governed by a military junta, which took power in a bloodless coup on May 22, 2014, ousting a weak civilian government beset by sometimes violent street protests.
During his reign there were frequent military coups. Bhumibol acted as the ultimate arbitrator over feuding generals, defusing dangerous situations and sometimes consenting to the army's request for the overthrow of elected governments.
The death of the monarch, who was always the critical political institution in the kingdom, creates "a shift in the Thai political landscape," says associate professor Pavin Chachavalpongpun of Kyoto University's Center for Southeast Asian Studies. "Whether it's smooth or violent remains to be seen. From now on we might see a more prominent role of the military."
His son, the 63-year-old crown prince, is heir apparent. The prince also inherits properties said to be worth in excess of $35 billion.
Prince Vajiralongkorn, however, has never achieved the esteem enjoyed by the king and Queen Sirikit, who has been in poor health for years. The prince remains a rather remote figure, especially compared with his popular younger sister, Princess Sirindhorn, known for being humble and active with charitable work.
Some Thais have quietly spoken of having the princess succeed her father. But she has not been designated a possible heir and most Thai political analysts say the powerful military backs the crown prince.
The succession can not be openly discussed in Thailand. The kingdom has harshlese majeste laws, and any perceived criticism of the monarchy or its top royals can result in quick arrest and long prison terms.
Thailand is now expected to enter into a long period of official mourning. Analysts say that will put on hold any quick return to civilian government, indefinitely extending the military's rule.
Steve Herman is VOA's Senior Diplomatic Correspondent, based at the State Department.