Thailand's beleaguered king greeted adoring crowds in central Bangkok yesterday as protesters massed outside a palace-linked bank demanding monarchy reform.
Accompanied by Queen Suthida, King Maha Vajiralongkorn mingled with royalists at Lumpini Park after paying respects at a monument dedicated to his late grand-uncle, King Vajiravudh.
Many had waited for hours, waving small Thai flags and bearing pictures of the monarch, whose wealth and spending has come under increasing scrutiny amid the pandemic-induced downturn.
"The monarchy issue can be discussed, but with respect, not hate," royalist leader Warong Dechgitvigrom told The Straits Times. "If you are disappointed with the government, blame the government, not the monarchy."
The royalists see the monarchy as central to Thai identity and have condemned the insolent language used by protesters towards the institution they revere.
Some 7km away, protesters rallied outside the headquarters of Siam Commercial Bank, 23 per cent of which is owned directly by King Vajiralongkorn.
The monarch became a major landowner and shareholder of several Thai corporate giants in 2018, after he took personal ownership of the estimated US$40 billion (S$54 billion) worth of assets managed by the Crown Property Bureau, which controls property that belongs to the institution of the Thai monarchy. This fiscal year, almost nine billion baht (S$398 million) in the national budget has also been set aside for direct royal expenses.
Thailand is officially a constitutional monarchy. But protesters allege that the King - who commands two army units - exercises powers beyond the charter, and want his personal wealth to be separated from that of the Crown.
In June, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha said the King had asked the government not to use the lese majeste law on civilians. The moratorium appears to have been lifted this week, with at least seven protest leaders summoned to acknowledge the charge of insulting or defaming the monarchy, which could see them jailed for up to 15 years.
In a defiant statement released early yesterday, Free Youth, one of the key organisations driving the protests, said: "Under this state, having the King above the Constitution not only disgraces the people, but also buttresses inequality."
Last week, lawmakers voted to begin the process of amending the Constitution - a core demand of protesters - but rejected any move which would touch on the powers of the monarchy. Protesters, meanwhile, have rejected Lower House Speaker Chuan Leekpai's attempts to convene a "reconciliation committee".
Aided by stimulus measures, Thailand's economy shrank a smaller-than-expected 6.4 per cent in the third quarter from a year ago. But the economic uncertainty means the majority of the some 500,000 new graduates next year are likely to be unemployed.
After police turned chemical-laced water cannon and tear gas on protesters outside Parliament last week, Mr Prayut vowed to exercise all available laws, saying: "This situation has not shown signs of de-escalating, even though the government has been straightforward and earnest in trying to find a solution."
Amid the unrest, King Vajiralongkorn, who usually spends his time in Germany, has been touring Thailand and greeting supporters with looser protocols.
As excited royalists crowded close to snap photographs yesterday night, he penned in a book presented to him: "Love your nation. Love your fellowmen. Act for the collective happiness and benefit."