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Thailand's King, World's Longest Reigning Monarch, Dies At 88

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And the world's longest reigning monarch has died. The king of Thailand, Bhumibol Adulyadej, was 88. He was crowned king back in 1946. From Thailand, Michael Sullivan reports on the remarkable reign of a man revered by his people.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: When King Bhumibol ascended the throne, World War II had just ended. India was still part of the British Empire, and France still occupied Thailand's neighbors, Cambodia and Laos and also Vietnam. He was a king born, not in Thailand, but Cambridge, Mass., raised there and in Europe.

MICHAEL MONTESANO: Expectations of him were quite low when he originally came back from Switzerland to take the throne and be in Thailand full time.

SULLIVAN: Michael Montesano is a senior fellow at Singapore's Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.

MONTESANO: He had had a European upbringing. He had spoken a lot of English and a lot of French and had not been primarily educated in Thai. So one of the things that had to happen when he first came back was that he needed to be coached in speaking Thai in public settings.

SULLIVAN: By most accounts, the young king was a quick learner aided by a group of palace wise men, who guided him along the way. Paul Handley has written what's widely regarded as the definitive biography called "The King Never Smiles." Handley says the king's achievements were many - chief among them, his concern for the rural majority.

PAUL HANDLEY: He helped to keep the focus on the fight of the rural Thais, the poor Thais, the peasants, the farmers, these millions of peasants that were generally ignored by the urban elite over the decades.

SULLIVAN: Another huge accomplishment, says Michael Montesano, was the king's ability to help create unity and national identity at a delicate time in Thai and Southeast Asian history.

MONTESANO: He will be seen as a man who played a very important and, in many ways, benign role in achieving integration in a Southeast Asian state during a time when much of Southeast Asia was coming apart and the Cold War was doing terrible damage to the region.

SULLIVAN: What Montesano calls the glory days of the king's reign from the 1960s to the '90s were a period of rapid social and economic development in Thailand. But development of strong democratic institutions didn't keep pace. Paul Chambers follows Thai politics and the Thai military at Chiang Mai University.

PAUL CHAMBERS: This is not a king who was bent on developing democracy. I think his main interest was ensuring that order would prevail and that it would be an order that would ensure the durability of monarchy, a powerful monarchy in alliance with a military that would still stand above parliamentary democracy.

SULLIVAN: In addition, Chambers and others argue, as the king's health deteriorated, the influence of his advisers and the military became more pronounced, especially during the political instability from 2006 to the present, that saw the military stage two coups against two democratically-elected governments.

CHAMBERS: So at the very twilight of this king's reign, the royal privy council which is the advisory board of the monarch, as well as the military, were playing much more important roles than in the recent past.

SULLIVAN: But even if his influence and reputation waned in recent years, says the king's unofficial and banned biographer Paul Handley, history will treat King Bhumibol kindly.

HANDLEY: Despite his institution amassing a pretty huge fortune of assets. He lived a pretty simple life, and I think that people will look at that and say, you know, here's a guy who has really dedicated himself to his country, whatever the results.

SULLIVAN: For NPR News, I'm Michael Sullivan in Bangkok. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.