King Maha Vajiralongkorn called Thailand the “land of compromise” in unprecedented comments Sunday, during which the once-unapproachable monarch declared “love” for all Thais after months of protests calling for reform to the monarchy.
The 68-year-old ruler sits at the apex of Thai power, and comments to the media are rare due to protocols dictating formalities with the royal family.
Societal taboos also prohibit Thais from speaking to – or questioning – the monarch, who is protected from criticism thanks to a draconian royal defamation law with a broad legal interpretation.
But the once-untouchable institution faces unprecedented challenges from a growing pro-democracy movement, some of whose leaders are demanding reforms to the monarchy, including for the law’s abolition.
On Sunday, royal devotion was on display as thousands wearing yellow shirts – the royal colour – waited near the Grand Palace clutching portraits of King Vajiralongkorn and Queen Suthida.
Zigzagging through the crowd to greet supporters, the monarch was stopped by a reporter with Britain’s Channel 4 who asked him about protesters calling for reform.
“We love them all the same,” he told the reporter repeatedly according to a clip posted on Channel 4’s official Twitter account.
When asked if there is room for compromise, he said: “Thailand is the land of compromise.”
As Vajiralongkorn moved through the crowd, royalists chanted, “We will live loyally, die faithfully” and “Long live the King!”
The ultra-wealthy monarch is supported by the kingdom’s military and billionaire clans, wielding unparalleled influence across every aspect of Thai society.
He spends long periods of time in Germany, but has been in Thailand in recent weeks to mark a Buddhist holiday and the anniversary of his father’s death.
The visit has coincided with non-stop demonstrations from mostly young activists, who have staged guerrilla rallies drawing thousands to Bangkok’s most traffic-clogged intersections as a show of defiance.
While the movement is leaderless, they are united in their demand for the removal of Premier Prayut Chan-O-Cha, a former military chief who came to power after staging a coup in 2014.
But calls for reform of the monarchy have drawn a backlash from Thailand’s conservative bloc, rousing royalist groups to stage their own rallies.
“We came here to show our loyalty to the king,” said Bin Bunleurit, a former Thai actor who decried the students’ demands.
Controversially, the students have also called for a clear accounting of the palace’s finances – which the extremely wealthy king took control of in 2018 – and for the monarch to “stay out” of politics.
“It is not reform, it is about overthrowing the monarchy,” Bin insisted to reporters outside the palace.
The growing show of force from royalists – as well as their increasingly harsh rhetoric online against the pro-democracy bloc – has observers worrying about violence spilling onto the streets.
Thailand is no stranger to political bloodshed, with previous pro-democracy movements forcefully put down by the arch-royalist military, which positions itself as the monarchy’s sole defender.
A notable example was a student massacre in 1976, which saw ultra-royalist militias and armed forces kill, stab and lynch protesters rallying against an ex-military dictator.
So far, the anti-government protests have remained peaceful.
But scores of students and activists have been arrested and charged – some with the serious crime of sedition.
Over the weekend three high-profile student leaders were released on bail, only to be swiftly accosted as authorities attempted to re-arrest them on another charge.
A scuffle with plainclothes police landed them in hospital.
On Sunday night one of the trio, Parit “Penguin” Chiwarak, pledged in a Facebook post that they would keep pushing for their goals.
“If the people do not step back, we will not step back,” he wrote.