Image: Thai prime minister, king, cabinet members
Thailand's Prime Minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, standing in the front row, and his cabinet listen to King Bhumibol Adulyadej, left, during a swearing-in ceremony Monday at Chitralada Palace in Bangkok. Bhumibol, who has occupied the throne for six decades, has historically been the country's sole unifying figure in times of crisis.
updated 12/22/2008 3:02:33 PM ET 2008-12-22T20:02:33

Thailand's revered monarch urged the new government Monday to make peace its priority, breaking months of silence about the political turmoil that shut down Bangkok's airports and sparked deadly violence in the streets.

The ailing 81-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej spoke slowly and with a hoarse voice as he presided over a swearing-in ceremony for the Cabinet, unveiled two days earlier and led by Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva.

"I hope you will be able to carry out your tasks efficiently and make the country run smoothly," Bhumibol said in a short televised speech from the ceremony at Chitralada Palace, the king's Bangkok residence.

"I want to see peace in the country," the king told the ministers, all dressed in white ceremonial uniforms and standing in formation.

First public remarks
The comments were Bhumibol's first public remarks on the unrest that flared seven months ago when protesters took to the streets in a campaign to purge the government of leaders close to ex-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

When Abhisit was selected by Parliament last week, he became Thailand's third leader in four months — and the first opponent of Thaksin to lead a civilian government in seven years. Thaksin was deposed by a 2006 military coup but remains central to the crisis. He and his supporters retain strong support in rural areas where they built up a political base, but are disliked by many of the educated elite who viewed his six years in power as deeply corrupt and a threat to their interests.

Abhisit's selection raised hopes that he would stop the revolving door of leaders, most of whom were removed amid demonstrations that saw the prime minister's office compound and the capital's airports overrun. The weeklong seizure of Bangkok's two airports earlier this month stranded 350,000 travelers and cost the vital tourism industry millions of dollars.

In October, street clashes with police outside Parliament left two people dead and hundreds injured.

Queen aired her views
Queen Sirikit, the monarch's spouse, publicly aired her views after the rioting. She offered financial assistance to those injured during the clashes with police and even attended the funeral of one of the protesters — a move seen as extraordinary in a country where members of the royal family do not generally attend funerals of commoners.

Many Thais had eagerly awaited Bhumibol's annual televised birthday address earlier this month, hoping it might guide the country out of its political turbulence. But the king canceled the speech because of what the palace described as bronchitis and an inflammation of the esophagus, raising new concerns about his health and his stance on the crisis.

Bhumibol, who has occupied the throne for six decades, has historically been the country's sole unifying figure in times of crisis. Thais have long looked to him as the country's top moral authority even though he is a constitutional monarch with few real powers.

The king's last public appearance was Dec. 3 when he looked haggard while inspecting royal troops. Last year, the king was hospitalized for more than three weeks for symptoms of a stroke and a colon infection. He also has a history of heart trouble.

On Monday, Thais in the capital gathered around televisions in shops and restaurants as he spoke.

"I feel such relief after listening to him speak," said Malai Chanachai, a 61-year-old retired teacher who stopped at a grocery store when she saw him on TV. "It made me feel that the country will move forward and eventually become more peaceful."

Question of royal succession
The store's owner, Puangtip Poolsuwan, 60, said seeing the king looking somewhat healthier "brought warmth to my heart" but his frailty made it apparent that "he's still sick. I truly hope he gets better soon."

The question of royal succession has long weighed heavily on Thai politics, and ordinary Thais, but probably never more than now.

Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, the king's 56-year-old son and presumed heir, doesn't have the stature or moral authority of his father.

Whether the king's remarks will bring calm remains to be seen, analysts said.

Thaksin supporters have pledged to rally outside Parliament on Sunday, a day before Abhisit's government presents its policies to legislators.

"Thailand's crisis and confrontation is so deep seated, the royal remark to the new government will certainly soothe tensions but the polarization and confrontation may persist," said Thitinan Pongsidhirak, a political scientist at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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