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Thailand's King Bhumibol Adulyadej dies aged 88

Mulenga Hornsby

King Bhumibol of Thailand, the world's longest-serving head of state, has "passed away peacefully" at the age of 88. The news was confirmed by the palace on Thursday. It comes just days after they warned that the king's health was "not stable".

"His Majesty has passed away at Siriraj Hospital peacefully," the palace statement said, adding he died at 15:52 (08:52 GMT). Parliament is to hold a special session at 21:00 local time (14:00 GMT).

To his people, he was a symbol of unity, revered as the 'soul of the nation'. This year he celebrated 70 years on the throne.

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The occasion was marked with a ceremony in Bangkok's Royal Palace, in which alms were bestowed on 770 orange-robed monks. Meanwhile, the public showed their devotion by wearing yellow, the colour of royalty.

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King Bhumibol of Thailand died 'peacefully' on Thursday

Such was the respect for the 88-year-old monarch – also known as Rama IX, a title signalling that he is the ninth sovereign of the Chakri dynasty, founded in 1782 – that shops ran out of yellow shirts.

Sadly, the royal patriarch, who was seen as projecting neutrality and stability amid the political turmoil and frequent coups in the country, was confined to his hospital bed during the festivities, suffering ill health as he has for much of the last decade. Nor did his wife Queen Sirikit, the world's longest serving consort, make public appearances since a stroke in 2012.

The king's tenure surpassed Queen Elizabeth II's 64 years on the throne. And as with the British monarch, no one ever suspected at birth that he would wear the crown.

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The king's tenure surpassed Queen Elizabeth II's 64 years on the throne

Bhumibol Adulyajeh was born in 1927 in the United States, where his father Prince Mahidol was studying public health at Harvard University. His mother, Princess Srinagarindra, was an orphan from a humble family. The couple's paths crossed when Mahidol sponsored a number of students studying nursing in the US, one of whom was Srinagarindra.

All Thai names have meaning. Bhumibol's signifies 'the strength of the land, incomparable power', while Sirikit is 'the glory of her family'. In his case the illustrious moniker did not guarantee an auspicious start. His father passed away after suffering kidney failure when he was just two years old. 

Further family tragedy followed with the death of his older brother Ananda in 1946 in a shooting accident. It was at this point that Swiss-educated Bhumibol found himself heir to the throne.

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The monarch with his wife Sirikit

At his coronation in 1950, Bhumibol pledged to "reign with righteousness for the benefit and happiness of the people". A week earlier he had married Sirikit, the intelligent, beautiful daughter of the Thai ambassador to Britain, after presenting her with his mother's engagement ring.

Like his UK counterpart Queen Elizabeth's, Bhumibol's marriage was blessed with four children. And like Britain's Prince Charles, his heir, Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, is already in his sixties.

The Thai Crown Prince trained as a military pilot, and in fact he took part in counter-insurgency operations in the 1970s. He has seven children from three marriages.

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He was the world's longest-serving head of state

It was hard, though, to imagine Bhumibol's reign ever ending, with few Thais able to remember a time when he wasn't on the throne. He kept his pledge to his people, who recount how he used to make frequent tours of impoverished rural areas, spending hours listening to villagers' concerns about health, education and sanitation before setting up projects to help.

In an interview about his role in the 1970s, the softly spoken royal explained simply: "I do things that I think are useful."

In his spare time, he became an accomplished saxophonist who has jammed with jazz legends like Benny Goodman and Stan Getz. He also composed music. Among his 48 original tunes are Candlelight Blues, the lighthearted Love at Sundown and the more wistful Falling Rain.

Former Prime Minister Kukrit Pramoj has summed up Thais' feelings for their beloved King: "He is the head of the clan, the father of a very big family. He's the source of Thai culture, everything emanates from him – good manners, the way of living, the best Thai thinking."

It was a remarkable tribute to a remarkable man.