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Awaiting some royal guidance on crisis, Thais are disappointed

Amid a political vacuum, their king cancels annual speech because of illness.

December 05, 2008|Paul Watson | Watson is a Times staff writer.

BANGKOK, THAILAND — Dashing the hopes of Thais who looked to their monarch to help lead them out of a political crisis, King Bhumibol Adulyadej on Thursday canceled the speech he normally gives on the eve of his birthday.

Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn said that the monarch, who celebrates his 81st birthday today, was ill.

"Yesterday, his majesty the king was eating fine," the princess said. "But today the king suffered from bronchitis."

She said that the king was weak but that his condition was not serious.

The king has helped resolve numerous political problems during his 62-year reign, and many here hoped he would use his birthday address to nudge the country's rival political factions toward a compromise.

Instead, the royal silence has left a void as politicians haggled behind the scenes, trying to build a new governing coalition to fill the vacuum left by Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat's resignation Tuesday.

Bhumibol, revered as a demigod by many Thais, was admitted to a hospital last year for treatment of what his doctors said was poor blood flow to the left side of his brain.

If he were to suffer a serious illness now, it could complicate efforts to resolve Thailand's political stalemate, which dealt a severe blow to an economy already reeling from a spreading global downturn.

Banned from politics for five years by the Constitutional Court, Somchai handed over power to a caretaker prime minister. His party and two allied parties, found guilty of voter fraud in last year's elections, were ordered dissolved.

Somchai's disbanded People's Power Party has regrouped as the Puea Thai party. The antigovernment People's Alliance for Democracy, or PAD, which agreed to suspend its protests after the court order, regards the new party as another front for former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

Thaksin, who lives in exile and has been sentenced to two years in prison on corruption charges, was ousted in a bloodless military coup in 2006. His civilian successors, Samak Sundaravej and then Somchai, were seen as continuations of Thaksin's rule.

Thais fear that the military will intervene again if Thaksin allies return to government and PAD protesters return to the streets. The country is still struggling to recover from the massive economic damage wrought by a weeklong blockade of Bangkok's two airports.

Suvarnabhumi Airport resumed receiving international flights Thursday, two days after protesters ended an occupation that stranded more than 300,000 travelers. The country's airport authority says Suvarnabhumi, one of the region's busiest hubs, will be fully operational today.

The outgoing government had made a commitment for more than $28 million to compensate foreign tourists for food and lodging, with individual payments of nearly $60 a day.


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