BANGKOK - Thailand's aging monarch addressed the nation on Saturday for the first time since hospitalization more than two months ago, marking his 82nd birthday with a call for calm in the politically turbulent country.
The world's longest-reigning monarch, regarded as semi-divine by many of Thailand's 67 million people, has been hospitalized since September 19 and made a one-hour trip to Bangkok's Grand Palace for a ceremony attended by top royal officials and politicians.
Crowds of well-wishers greeted King Bhumibol Adulyadej as he left Siriraj Hospital in a wheelchair, accompanied by Queen Sirikit and dressed in ceremonial white royal garb.
The king, the sole unifying figure in a country plagued by decades of political upheaval, has been receiving physical therapy after suffering pneumonia, fatigue and fever, according to the Royal Household Bureau.
He has appeared in public twice since he was admitted, both times in a wheelchair in the grounds of the hospital. His disappearance from public view -- in his longest hospital stay in recent memory -- has left many of his people nervous.
Thousands lined the streets waving flags as the royal motorcade passed by, two hours later than scheduled, cheering as the king raised his hand intermittently to greet the crowds.
In a brief address shown on all local television channels, King Bhumibol thanked his people for their support throughout his time in hospital and urged all Thais to work for the good of the country.
Although the king's speeches are often nuanced, his comments carry much weight in Thailand, where he commands huge influence and moral authority.
SECURITY WITH CALM
My happiness and goodness will be preserved if our nation has prosperity and security with calm, he told palace and government officials at the ceremony.
You all have an important duty for the country and all Thai people must understand their duty clearly, and have in mind firmly to do their duty the best they can, for public benefit and to help develop the country.
Although the king is officially above politics, he has intervened several times in periods of crisis but has so far resisted calls to mediate and help end Thailand's current political standoff, which has paralyzed the deeply divided country for almost five years.
Celebrations for his birthday have been lavish so far, with royal boat processions, light and laser shows, spectacular firework displays and city streets adorned with portraits of the revered monarch.
The king returned to hospital within one hour of leaving and appeared tired as he moved past crowds of people dressed in pink, a color a palace astrologer said would bring him good health.
I wish for the king to be healthy. I wish for him to have a long life and to be with us for as long as possible, said 60-year-old Rawinan Poorahong, one of the hundreds of people who gathered at the hospital.
Another well-wisher, Aripan Chankaew, added: I wish him to have a long life. If I could give him my life, I would do it for the king.
(Additional reporting by Arada Kultawanich and Sinthana Kosolpradit; Writing by Martin Petty; Editing by Jason Szep and Jerry Norton)