More than 1,000 people have demonstrated in Thailand’s capital in support of King Maha Vajiralongkorn, a day after thousands of people marched to call for reforms of the monarchy.
Youth and student-led protests began in Thailand in July to call for the resignation of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha – a former army ruler – and a new constitution, but have increasingly sought curbs on the monarchy’s powers.
Cheering “Long live the king” and hoisting signs with pro-monarchy slogans, the royalists on Tuesday gathered at Lumphini Park in central Bangkok. Almost all of them wore yellow shirts, symbolising devotion to the monarchy, while some held portraits of the king and his late father, King Bhumibol Adulyadej.
“We want to show support and encouragement to his majesty,” said Thatchapan Boriphet, 57. “I am neutral politically but I cannot stand it when there is a violation of the monarchy.”
So far, royalist demonstrations have been considerably smaller than the tens of thousands of people who have joined the biggest protests against the government.
The demographics have also been very different. Many of the demonstrators on Tuesday in Lumphini Park were in their 50s or 60s, or older.
The pro-democracy protesters include many university students and young professionals, as well as a large contingent of high school students.
For many older Thais, any criticism of the monarchy is practically sacrilege. It is considered the bedrock of their national identity and is protected by a lese majeste law that calls for three to 15 years’ imprisonment for anyone who defames the monarch or members of his immediate family.
The military also considers defending the monarchy to be one of its main duties.
The pro-democracy protesters have accused the king of involvement in the country’s politics. On Monday, they marched to the German embassy to seek an inquiry into whether he exercised his powers during long stays in Germany, something Berlin has said would be unacceptable.
The palace has a policy of not commenting to the media and has made no comment since the start of the protests.
Prayuth, the prime minister, has ignored the demands to quit and said the crisis should be discussed in parliament, where his supporters are in the majority.
Opposition parties told him he should step down for the good of the country and stop using his proclaimed support for the monarchy as an argument to keep power.
Prayuth’s opponents say he only kept power at elections last year thanks to electoral rules and a constitution drawn up by the military government he headed after a 2014 coup. He says that the ballot was fair.
Royalists played a large part in demonstrations in 2006 and 2014 that helped bring down elected governments by leading to army takeovers.
At Tuesday’s gathering, Tul Sittisomwong, a prominent figure in the 2014 protests, called for unity and loyalty to the monarchy.
Many royalists believe the student protesters are being manipulated by older activists with their own political agendas.
They have blamed an opposition political party that expresses support for the young demonstrators.
“Wherever you are, Move Forward Party, if you don’t stop your manipulation, we will come to you. The group will be chased out if they don’t stop defaming the monarchy,” Tul said.
“Who is really behind this?” said businessman Sathit Segal, who also played a leadership role in 2014.
“Problems in our country are caused by politicians who think only about themselves, attacking the monarchy,” Segal said.
“You can protest and demand anything you want. But do not involve the monarchy. That cannot be accepted.”
A fringe group of royalists professes to believe the United States is behind efforts to attack the monarchy and destabilise Thailand. A handful protested outside the US embassy on Tuesday.
Self-proclaimed “defenders of the monarchy” mobilised last week online and in rallies in several cities, in many cases led by local civil servants.
There are concerns that political polarisation could trigger violence. A few attendees at a small royalist rally in Bangkok last week attacked anti-government student activists and had to be restrained by police.