As mass anti-government protests build across Thailand and calls for reform of the monarchy grow, King Maha Vajiralongkorn has called his country “the land of compromise,” suggesting there may be an exit from the months-long political stalemate.
Asked whether there was any room for compromise with protesters who are demanding a curb on his powers, Vajiralongkorn said that, “Thailand is the land of compromise.”
This is the first time that the 68-year-old monarch has addressed foreign media since 1979 when he was Crown Prince.
In a rare move for the palace, members of the international press had been invited to sit among crowds of royalist supporters waiting to see the King. Usually, only the royal news teams are allowed to cover this sort of annual royal function, especially at the Grand Palace – a sign that the King may be quick to improve his image internationally as the mass protest movement represents a direct challenge to his standard.
Thailand’s King Maha Vajiralongkorn waves from his limousine after officiating a graduation ceremony at Bangkok’s Thammasat University on October 31, 2020.
Lord Vajiralongkorn had on Sunday taken part in a religious ceremony to mark the change of the season at the Grand Palace. The King changed the costume of the Emerald Buddha statue – the most important statue of the Buddha in Thailand – marking the official transition from the blustery season to winter.
Dressed in yellow, thousands of pro-monarchy supporters gathered at the palace and were greeted by King Vajiralongkorn, Queen Suthida and the King’s daughter Princess Sirivannavari.
The Princess told CNN that Thailand is a peaceful country, saying “we love the Thai people, no matter what.”
Student-led protests have been ongoing almost every day across Thailand since July, attracting tens of thousands of people calling for another constitution, the dissolution of parliament and resignation of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha – the former army general who seized power in a 2014 coup.
A core demand of the demonstrations has been reform of Thailand’s powerful monarchy to ensure the King is answerable to the constitution.
It’s the biggest challenge to the decision establishment in decades, with youngsters publicly breaking entrenched taboos on speaking openly about the royal family in public. Thailand has some of the world’s strictest lese majeste laws, and criticizing the King, Queen, or beneficiary apparent can lead to a maximum 15-year prison sentence.
As Thailand grapples with an economic downturn exacerbated by measures to control the coronavirus pandemic, protesters have begun to scrutinize King Vajiralongkorn’s monstrous wealth and power.
Vajiralongkorn has consolidated his power by expanding his own appointed military unit, the King’s Guard. He has also vastly increased his personal wealth and transferred billions of dollars’ worth of royal assets held by the Thai Crown directly into his control.
Protesters say that Thailand cannot achieve true democracy until the top-down decision establishment made up of the monarchy, military and wealthy political elites is reformed.
The King’s comments come as the political crisis in Thailand is in danger of transforming into a diplomatic problem with Germany, where the Thai King spends much of his time.
Last Monday, thousands of Thai protesters marched to the German embassy in Bangkok calling on the German government to investigate whether the King has conducted state business during his time in the country. In a letter submitted to the German Embassy in Thailand, protesters also requested the German government probe the King’s tax records.
Berlin has said it would be unacceptable for Vajiralongkorn to conduct politics from Germany and the country’s Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said it is continuing to investigate his activities while on German soil.
“We are monitoring this long-term,” Maas said at a news conference last Monday. “It will have immediate consequences if there are things that we evaluate to be illegal.”
In an extraordinary session of parliament on Monday, Prayut dismissed calls from opposition parties to resign but indicated that the government supported amending the constitution.
The session failed to produce any results to facilitate the political crisis, instead the formation of a national reconciliation committee was proposed.
The King returned to Thailand toward the beginning of October for a progression of royal duties and official functions.
Many protesters have been arrested under an emergency decree imposed shortly after the King’s arrival in Thailand. The emergency measures, which banned public gatherings of more than four people in the capital, followed more than seven days of day by day anti-government protests in Bangkok and other cities.
Charges have ranged from smaller offenses to more serious crimes, for example, sedition, which carries a maximum seven years in prison, and violating the Computer Crime Act. Two activists were arrested on charges of attempting violence against the Queen, after her motorcade was obstructed by anti-government crowds, and face a possible life sentence.
Prime Minister Prayut, with approval from the King, has since lifted those measures. But the demonstrations continue.
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