King Bhumibol Adulyadej, revered in Thailand as a demigod, a humble father figure, and an anchor of stability through decades of upheaval at home and abroad, died Thursday. He was 88 and had been the world's longest reigning monarch, reports the AP. The Royal Palace said Bhumibol died "in a peaceful state" at Siriraj Hospital in Bangkok, where he underwent an operation over the weekend and had been treated over the past decade. During a reign that spanned 70 years, the US-born Bhumibol was the nation's one constant as myriad governments rose and fell, a gentle leader who used the throne's influence to unify the nation and rally troops through the Cold War as Thailand's neighbors fell under communist control. In his heyday, the frail, soft-spoken man in spectacles wielded so much power and respect, he could squelch coups and rebellions with a gesture or a few well-chosen words.
Bhumibol was the world's richest monarch and one of the planet's wealthiest people: Forbes magazine estimated his fortune at more than $30 billion in 2011. Although not known for having extravagant tastes, he nevertheless lived the elite life of a modern-day king, racing yachts and appearing at official functions clothed in ornate golden robes. Over the last decade, the once vigorous Bhumibol had withdrawn from public life due to a series of illnesses. His wife, Queen Sirikit, has also long been ailing and has been even more rarely seen. Strong anti-defamation laws in Thailand make it a severe crime to speak ill of the king or the royal family, making it sometimes difficult for outsiders to gauge public opinion. However, NPR reports that the king's successor, Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, is clearly less well-liked than his father. Thailand's PM says the government will observe a one-year mourning period and flags will fly at half-staff for 30 days. No government events will be held for 30 days, he added. The world's longest reigning monarch is now Queen Elizabeth II, who ascended to the British throne in 1952. (Read more Thailand stories.)