NEW YORK — King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand, who took the throne of the kingdom once known as Siam shortly after World War II and held it for more than 70 years, establishing himself as a revered personification of Thai nationhood, died Thursday in Bangkok. He was 88 and one of the longest-reigning monarchs in history.
King Bhumibol was a unifying figure in a deeply polarized country, and his death cast a pall of uncertainty across Thailand, raising questions about the future of the monarchy itself.
The military junta, which seized power in a coup two years ago, derives its authority from the king. But the king’s heir apparent, Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, seen by many as a jet-setting playboy, is not held in the same regard as his father.
King Bhumibol spent most of his final years in a hospital, ensconced in a special suite. His portrait hung in almost every shop, and as his health declined, billboards proclaimed “Long Live the King,” signaling widespread anxiety about a future without him. In response, he openly fretted that the people should feel so insecure.
Thais came to see this Buddhist king as a father figure wholly dedicated to their welfare, and as the embodiment of stability in a country where political leadership rose and fell through decades of military coups.
His death ends a reign of 70 years and 126 days. Queen Elizabeth II, royal head of Britain for more than 64 years, becomes the world’s longest-reigning monarch.
King Bhumibol (pronounced poo-me-pon) was an accidental monarch, thrust onto the throne at 18 by the violent death of his older brother in 1946. He fully embraced the role of national patriarch, upholding Thailand’s traditions of hierarchy, deference, and loyalty.
He was a product of the East but born in the West, a native of Cambridge, Mass., where he father was studying medicine at Harvard University. And western stereotypes of his country irked him. He disdained the Broadway musical “The King and I,” with its roots in his grandfather’s court. And, like a stern father, he was quick to chastise his fellow Thais when he saw the need.
In the king’s own book “The Story of Tongdaeng” (2002), about a street dog he had adopted, the message — there was always a message in his writings — was that affluent Thais should stop buying expensive foreign breeds when there were so many local strays to save. The book was a Thai bestseller.
But he had a worldly bent. After his family left Massachusetts, he was educated in Switzerland, spoke impeccable English and French, composed music, played jazz on the clarinet and saxophone, wrote, painted, took up photography, and spent hours in a greenhouse at his Chitrlada Palace in Bangkok.
Once he had returned from Europe, however, he stayed put. He stopped traveling abroad, saying there was too much to do at home. He was content to trudge through croplands in distant provinces in an open-neck shirt and sport coat, tending to the hundreds of development projects he encouraged and oversaw: milk-pasteurizing plants, dams that watered rice fields, factories that recycled sugar-cane stalks and water hyacinths into fuel, and countless others.
In a political crisis, Thais admired him for his shrewd sense of when to intervene — sometimes with only a gesture — to defuse it, even though he had only a limited constitutional role and no direct political power.
“We are fighting in our own house,” he scolded two warring politicians whom he had summoned to sit abjectly at his feet in 1992. “It is useless to live on burned ruins.”
Thailand was transformed during his reign, moving from a mostly agricultural economy to a modern one of industry and commerce and a growing middle class. He presided over an expansion of democratic processes, though it was halting. He witnessed a dozen successful military coups and several attempted uprisings, and in his last years, his health failing, he appeared powerless to stem sometimes violent demonstrations.
Meanwhile a strain of republicanism emerged as the country broke into two camps: on one side, the establishment, with the palace at its core; on the other, the disenfranchised, whose demand for a political voice threatened the traditional order.
Between them was the king, a calming symbol of unity — so much so that at times he wanted to moderate the country’s almost obsessive veneration of him.
In his birthday speech in 2005, he said the belief that the king can do no wrong was “very much an insult to the king.”
“Why is it that the king can do no wrong?” he asked. “This shows they do not regard the king as being a human. But the king can do wrong.”
Bhumibol Adulyadej was born in Cambridge on Dec. 5, 1927, the son of Prince Mahidol of Songkhla, a founder of modern medicine in Thailand; the prince was studying public health at the time.
King Bhumibol’s mother, Princess Sangwalya Chukramol, was a Thai nurse studying on a scholarship at Simmons College in Boston when she met the prince. King Bhumibol had an older brother, Ananda, and a sister, Galyani Vadhana.
King Bhumibol and his father were inheritors of the reformist tradition begun by King Mongkut in the 19th century and accelerated by his son King Chulalongkorn, King Bhumibol’s grandfather.
Mongkut and Chulalongkorn were the king and prince in “Anna and the King of Siam,” Margaret Landon’s 1943 novel, which was based on the autobiographical writings of Anna Leonowens. The novel inspired the musical “The King and I.”
King Bhumibol was 2 when his father died, and his mother took her children to Switzerland for schooling. Their family life was interrupted in 1935 when Thailand’s last absolute king, Prajadhipok, Mahidol’s half brother, abdicated in the wake of a military coup. The crown passed to Mahidol’s eldest son, Prince Ananda, then 10 years old.
Ananda was barely into his 20s when, on June 9, 1946, he was found dead in his private chambers with a bullet through his head.
King Bhumibol was the last family member to have seen him alive, but he never spoke publicly about the death or about rumors that the young king, a gun collector, might have committed suicide or killed himself accidentally.
Bhumibol, though not originally in the line of succession, was anointed king. He soon returned to Switzerland for a few years and studied politics and history at the University of Lausanne.
While on a trip to Paris, he met Sirikit Kitiyakara, whose father, a Thai prince, was serving as a diplomat in Europe. They married in 1950, the year King Bhumibol was formally crowned Rama IX of the Chakri dynasty.
In addition to his wife, the king leaves three daughters, Ubol Ratana, who graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and lived mostly in California until returning to the fold in Thailand in 2006, Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, and Chulabhorn; and one son, Vajiralongkorn, the heir to the throne.