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Thai king's birthday marks time-out in Thailand's game of thrones

Though the royal institution once enjoyed a near-universal respect, recent political polarization has raised questions about the role of the monarchy and about the country's future after his reign. 

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Thailand's King Bhumibol Adulyadej addresses to the crowd from the balcony at the Anantha Samakhom Throne Hall in Bangkok, Thailand, Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2012 during his 85th birthday celebration.

Sakchai Lalit/AP

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Hundreds of thousands of Thais lined the streets of Bangkok on Wednesday to see King Bhumibol Adulyadej make a rare public speech to mark his 85th birthday.

“My heart feels so good today seeing His Majesty,” says Penpat Thaweekul, one of the vast royal-supporting yellow-clad crowd waiting under a hot sun to catch a glimpse of the now-frail king speaking from a distant balcony.

The world's longest-sitting monarch is portrayed as a widely-revered apolitical father-figure – but even with this representation, there are lines Thailand's elected politicians cannot cross. Though the royal institution once enjoyed a near-universal respect, recent polarization has raised questions about that role and about the country's future after his reign. 

After the king's reign, “the royalist domination in politics will be in disarray, for sure,” says historian Thongchai Winichakul. The rest, he says is unclear, wondering, “Will their power decline or will they take a tighter control during the transition?”

The heir-apparent is the only son of the king, Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, who as rumors have it was close to former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in the past, and appears to command less respect among Thais than Princess Sirindhorn, the king’s daughter and second in line.

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