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Backstory: The king and Thai

The world's longest-reigning monarch can bring a nation to its knees - the old-fashioned way.

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Inside a darkened movie theater, a young audience settles in to watch "The Da Vinci Code." Popcorn and drinks at hand, they wisecrack through movie trailers. Then, it's time for the feature presentation.

Well, almost time. A written notice appears on-screen in Thai and English: "Please pay respect to His Majesty the King." The audience quickly rises, and a soaring chorus fills the thea-ter, accompanied by a cascade of vintage newsreels of Thailand's King Bhumibol Adulyadej. As the king's anthem reaches its final crescendo, the screen digitally morphs into an image of the monarch's bespectacled face. Emotions are clearly stirred by the iconic face and song.

Then, as abruptly as it began, the anthem ends, the audience sits, and the flick begins.

Across Thailand, the ritual plays out daily, from grubbiest fleapit to slickest multiplex. No law dictates the anthem sound; no law is needed in a nation steeped in royalist awe, where barely a republican squeak is heard.

The royals here hold a distinctly different sway over their world than in the West where tragicomic monarchies can inspire as much misty-eyed nationalism as fodder for tabloid entertainment.

King Bhumibol is invested with more than just the importance of bloodline and political power, he's a pious religious scholar and is seen by this Buddhist nation as divine. He's invariably described as "deeply revered," which probably understates the public love Thais have for "my King." His image is all over billboards and public buildings, on walls in private homes, and on currency (don't toss it around casually, his image makes money close to divine, too). Shops sell life-size cutouts of him to display at home.

In recent months, the visual reminders have multiplied as Thailand celebrates the 60th anniversary of the king assuming the throne in 1946. A surfeit of pageantry and pomp is planned to mark the ascension of the world's longest-reigning monarch, the ninth in the unbroken Chakkri dynasty that began in 1782.


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