Thai King is Longest Reigning Monarch

Thailand's king, the world longest-serving monarch, marked 60 years on the throne Friday, calling for unity in his politically troubled country as hundreds of thousands of adoring Thais cheered and waved yellow flags.

King Bhumibol Adulyadej, 78, greeted his subjects in a glittering golden gown from the palace balcony in Bangkok, only the third such appearance of his royal career.

"Unity is a basis for all Thais to help preserve and bring prosperity to the country," the king said in a five-minute speech. "If Thais uphold these ethics, it will ensure that Thailand will stand firmly."

Booming cannons and a deafening roar from the crowd welcomed the king's appearance. The monarch is beloved for his projects to help the rural poor and for using his moral influence to keep the country together through political turmoil.

Many Thais began gathering late Thursday, turning the roads near the Royal Plaza into a sea of yellow, the color symbolizing Monday, the day the king was born.

The people cried and held hands in reverence, chanting "long live the king," as Bhumibol and Queen Sirikit waved goodbye from the balcony.

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Thailand has been mired in a political crisis for months over corruption allegations against Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and demands that he resign. The country has been without a working legislature since April 2 general elections boycotted by the opposition and invalidated by the nation's highest court.

Thaksin also addressed the crowd, praising the king for helping keep Thailand stable.

"The king has been a center of faith, a source of moral support and power for the nation, who has driven the country with perseverance, balance and good conscience," Thaksin said.

Thailand's fishermen in the northern city of Chiang Khong came up with another way to celebrate the anniversary: they agreed to stop fishing the critically endangered Mekong giant catfish. In a ceremony to honor the king Friday, 60 fishermen were to be given $520 for each giant catfish net they surrender.

The World Conservation Union listed the Mekong giant catfish as critically endangered in 2003 after research showed its numbers had fallen by at least 80 percent in the past 13 years.

Although the king is a constitutional monarch with limited powers, he has used his prestige to smooth over several political crises over the years, persuading opposing parties to compromise for the sake of peace and stability. He often mingles with people in remote villages where he has started hundreds of development projects.

In April, Bhumibol urged the nation's top courts to resolve the political deadlock that followed the inconclusive elections, prompting court to annul the vote and paving the way for new balloting.

"I feel like I am getting to meet with our father," said Sarawuth Poomthong, a popular Thai actor. "This has always been one of my dreams to see the king."

Thailand has declared a five-day public holiday for the festivities, including fireworks, feasts and a river parade featuring dozens of gilded ceremonial boats. A royal banquet Tuesday closes the celebrations.

Heads of state and royalty from 25 countries, including Japan's Emperor Akihito, Britain's Prince Andrew and Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands, were expected to attend the culmination of celebrations next week.

King Bhumibol was named king on June 9, 1946, after the death of his older brother. Britain's Queen Elizabeth II, who ascended to the throne in 1952, is the world's second-longest serving monarch.