BANGKOK- Thailand's beleaguered king greeted adoring crowds in central Bangkok on Wednesday (Nov 25) 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 granduncle, 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 at the park. "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 on 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.
Although the protest ended peacefully, local media reports say one protester was shot in the abdomen afterwards. The suspect has reportedly been apprehended.
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$53.7 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 9 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 monarch - 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 revealed that 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 result them being jailed for up to 15 years.
In a defiant statement released early Wednesday, 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."
The rally was moved to the bank at the last minute after the vicinity of the Crown Property Bureau, the original venue, was tightly barricaded by police.
Lawmakers last week 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", arguing it will go nowhere.
Aided by stimulus measures, Thailand's tourism-reliant economy shrank a smaller-than-expected 6.4 per cent in the third quarter compared to a year ago. But the economic uncertainty means that majority of the some 500,000 new graduates next year are likely to be unemployed.
After police turned chemical-laced water cannons 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 a major part of the year in Germany, has been touring Thailand and greeting supporters with looser protocols.
As excited royalists crowded close to him to snap photographs with their cellphones on Wednesday night, he penned in a book presented to him: "Love your nation. Love your fellowmen. Act for the collective happiness and benefit."