BANGKOK • From a distance, the volunteers cleaning up a clogged Bangkok waterway could be mistaken for Scouts, but the civilians, wearing yellow foulards and blue hats, are part of a volunteer programme started by Thai King Maha Vajiralongkorn, 66.
The Volunteer Spirit scheme, officially started last year, has created a new army of civilians who have pledged allegiance to the King and are boosting his image ahead of his formal coronation at the year end.
King Vajiralongkorn's father, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, was revered by Thais during his seven decades on the throne, and the deep relationship between the monarchy and the military helped facilitate a smooth royal transition after his death in October 2016.
Since then, the new King has brought about a major shake-up of royal affairs, and some observers said he may be seeking to distance himself from the military, which has been in power since a 2014 coup.
Last year, King Vajiralongkorn demanded unprecedented changes to a constitutional draft endorsed by the military government. He has also taken back control of royal assets that were formally managed by the government.
Dr David Streckfuss, a Thailand-based independent scholar, saw the programme as an attempt by the King to create a separate power base. The palace declined comment.
Ms Thamontip Puangkitja, a 50-year-old retiree turned volunteer, said the volunteer programme benefits the royal household.
Another volunteer, housewife Patcharaporn Husain, 61, said: "I joined the programme because I wanted to do good for the King."
Over four million volunteers from all walks of life have joined the scheme, said officials. They carry out a range of tasks from cleaning public spaces to helping police direct traffic. Their most high-profile moment came when the volunteers joined an international effort to rescue 12 boys and their football coach from a flooded cave last month.
"We fed about 4,000 people every day at the cave," a palace official, who was involved in the rescue, told Reuters.
"The King wants the volunteers to be a kind of 'Sue Pa'," Mr Sulak Sivaraksa, a scholar who has at times been a critic of the monarchy, told Reuters, referring to the Wild Tiger Corps, a paramilitary force founded in 1911 by King Vajiravudh.
The new King "wants the monarchy to serve the people, to protect the people, to do well for the people", added Mr Sulak, 86.
King Bhumibol was patron to hundreds of foundations across Thailand, but no such volunteer programme existed during his reign.
"The volunteer programme is one of the great successes of the new King," said Mr Sulak.