Joy and concern as Thai king fails to attend his 87th birthday celebration

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BANGKOK — Thais celebrated King Bhumibol Adulyadej's 87th birthday Friday with both joy and trepidation as the ailing monarch failed to make an expected public appearance at a time of growing concern over his succession.

An announcement issued by the palace late Thursday night said the king's doctors advised he should not attend the main morning ceremony for his birthday because of poor health. His son, the heir apparent, substituted for him at an afternoon religious ceremony.

The king has been hospitalized since early October when he had his gall bladder removed. His absence, and the cancellation of the ceremony, did not come as a shock to most people because the monarch has been visibly ailing for the several years. The king spent almost four years in the hospital until leaving in August last year. When he was admitted in 2009, doctors said he was suffering from a lung inflammation.

Thais hold great affection for Bhumibol (poo-MEE-pohn), who took the throne in 1946. But his fading from public life and the palace's perceived role in the nation's raucous and sometimes violent political battles that started in 2006 and culminated in a May coup have diminished the reputation of the royal institution in recent years, undermining what had previously been near-universal respect for the monarchy.

Next in line is Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn. In recent weeks, members of the family of his wife, Princess Srirasm, have been arrested on charges of abusing their connections for financial benefit. Vajiralongkorn, 62, does not command the same respect and affection as the king, who was closely and actively involved in his country's development.

The prince appeared to be the only member of the king's immediate family to attend any of the major ceremonies marking the monarch's birthday.

Vajiralongkorn was accompanied by his daughter from the second of his three marriages for a religious ceremony at the country's most sacred temple, Wat Phra Kaew. Scheduled live television coverage of the event was canceled at the last minute, though excerpts were televised later on the nightly royal news.

The public and senior officials flocked to public ceremonies around the kingdom, the most elaborate in the capital Bangkok. Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, who took power in the May coup, was one of many dignitaries who paid his respects in front of a giant portrait of King Bhumibol in full royal regalia.

The crowd at Bangkok's Sanam Luang, a field outside the old Royal Palace, was entertained by fireworks and elephants festooned in lights, and lit candles to show their devotion to the king.

The birthday has usually been an occasion to boost public morale. Nationally broadcast speeches he used to make the day before his birthday were seen as the best gauge of his positions on Thailand's development. There was no pre-birthday broadcast Thursday.

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