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Obama pays tribute to Thai king as ‘close friend’ of US

Pittsburgh (AFP): US President Barack Obama extended condolences Thursday to Thailand over the death of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, calling him a “close friend” and partner of the United States.

Obama paid tribute to the king, whose death at age 88 was announced Thursday, as a “tireless champion” for Thailand’s development, praising his “unflagging devotion” to improving the lives of his subjects.

Obama’s warm words for the monarch belie difficult recent relations with Thailand.

Two military coups in quick succession have damaged relations with Bangkok, a treaty ally and regional powerhouse whose ties with Washington date back more than 180 years.

The US has not been able to prod the generals into restoring elections or easing controls on dissent.

But the much-loved king is a rare point of commonality in Thailand’s deeply divided society.

“His Majesty the King was a close friend of the United States and a valued partner of many US presidents,” Obama said.

“I had the honor of calling on His Majesty the King during my visit to Thailand in 2012, and recall his grace and warmth, as well as his deep affection and compassion for the Thai people.

“With a creative spirit and a drive for innovation, he pioneered new technologies that have rightfully received worldwide acclaim,” Obama said.

“His Majesty leaves a legacy of care for the Thai people that will be cherished by future generations.”

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton also extended “heartfelt condolences” together with her husband, former president Bill Clinton.

Bhumibol “was a true servant leader, acting with wisdom, strength, humility, and genuine care for the welfare of all people,” they wrote in a statement. “Our world needs more leaders like him today.”

The White House said it was still unclear whether Obama, who is now in his last 100 days in office, will attend the funeral.

“I don’t believe that they have released any details about a service yet, so once they do we will be in a better position to respond with our plans,” spokesman Eric Schultz said.

Some within Obama’s administration have argued for deeper engagement with Thailand, which is at the strategic heart of Southeast Asia, but has recently tilted toward a deeper alliance with China.