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Thailand wakes to uncertainty, grief without King Bhumibol

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Thailand's people woke up on Friday to the first day in 70 years without King Bhumibol Adulyadej, a king worshipped as a father-figure who guided the nation through decades of change and turmoil.

[BANGKOK] Thailand's people woke up on Friday to the first day in 70 years without King Bhumibol Adulyadej, a king worshipped as a father-figure who guided the nation through decades of change and turmoil.

The king, the world's longest-reigning monarch, died in a Bangkok hospital on Thursday. He was 88.

He had been in poor health for several years but his death has shocked the Southeast Asian nation of 67 million people and plunged it into grief.

The streets of Bangkok were busy as usual on Friday morning, 12 hours after news of the king's death broke. Most people dressed in black but shops opened for business.

The cabinet declared a government holiday for mourning but the Stock Exchange of Thailand said it and "other financial institutions" would operate as normal.

At Bangkok's Grand Palace, thousands of mourners lined up to pour water on a portrait of the king, a ritual that is part of royal funeral rites in Thailand. "He was the heart of the whole country," said Suthad Kongyeam, 53, a civil official. "It feels like losing a father."

Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn is expected to be the new king but he does not command the same adoration that his father earned over a lifetime on the throne.

Thailand has endured bomb attacks and economic worries recently while rivalry simmers between the military-led establishment and populist political forces after a decade of turmoil including two coups and deadly protests.

The king stepped in to calm crises on several occasions during his reign and many Thais worry about a future without him.

The military has for decades invoked its duty to defend the monarchy to justify its intervention in politics.

Military government leader Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha said on Thursday the country was in "immeasurable grief ... profound sorrow and bereavement".

He said security was his top priority and called for businesses to stay active and stock investors not to dump shares. Banks and financial markets are to stay open on Friday, industry officials said.

"DON'T KNOW WHAT TO THINK"

Thursday's crush of mourners in the grounds of Siriraj Hospital, where the king died, had gone by Friday morning, but about 100 people, most dressed in black, prayed there before a statue of the king's late mother. "I'm scared and don't know what to think. If I go home I can't think," said Jirawat Wayaphan, 64.

The hospital was open and busy, but all visitors froze and stood at attention as the national anthem was played over loudspeakers as usual at 8am.

Security was stepped up in Bangkok's old quarter of palaces, temples and ministries with soldiers at checkpoints, government offices and intersections.

Black-and-white footage of the king playing jazz on the saxophone has replaced regular transmissions on television channels since shortly after the king's death was announced.

Mr Prayuth said Prince Vajiralongkorn wanted to grieve with the people and leave the formal succession until later, when the parliament will invite him to ascend the throne. "Long live His Majesty the new king," Mr Prayuth said.

Thailand's strict lese-majeste laws have left little room for public discussion about the succession.

The junta has promised an election next year and pushed through a constitution to ensure its oversight of civilian governments. It looks firmly in control for a royal transition.

The government has set up a telephone hotline to help people cope with grief, a spokesman said.

Most Thais have known no other monarch and King Bhumibol's picture is hung in almost every house, school and office.

Until his later years, he was featured on television almost every evening, often trudging through rain, map in hand and camera around his neck, visiting a rural development project.

His wife, Queen Sirikit, 84, has also been in poor health over recent years.

The Thai community in southern California, the largest in the world outside of Thailand, was also in mourning.

"I just know that I loved my king, he is the king that helped everybody, helping the poor, everything," Stella Boonyawan, a Thai expatriate, said outside the Buddhist Wat Thai Temple in Los Angeles' San Fernando Valley. "You'll never find a king like our Thai king in the whole world. Our king (was) the best."

In Bangkok, Mr Prayuth warned against anyone taking advantage of the situation to cause trouble. Politicians from all sides will be in mourning.

Thai stocks and the baht currency are likely to be volatile in the short term and consumers could cut spending, but assuming a smooth transition, major economic disruption was not expected, the Eurasia Group of risk analysts said in a report before the king's death.

REUTERS