As Protesters Challenge Monarchy, Thai King Adopts More Approachable Image

Experts say the powerful monarch is taking a friendlier approach in the wake of unprecedented pro-democracy demonstrations.
Thailand, king, protests
Thailand's King Maha Vajiralongkorn waves to royalist supporters during a ceremony to commemorate the birthday of the late Thai king Bhumibol Adulyadej at Sanam Luang in Bangkok on Dec. 5, 2020. Photo:
Lillian SUWANRUMPHA / AFP

On a recent evening earlier this month, the Thai king was scheduled to appear just after 7PM in front of the royal palace in Bangkok. In anticipation, thousands of people sat shoulder to shoulder in the evening heat, eager to get a rare, up close look at one of the richest and most powerful monarchs in the world. 

“Please, no selfies with the king, no flash photography. And those who are at the front, please do not stand up,” said one of the guards in a friendly, casual tone.

Advertisement
File_005.jpeg

Supporters of Thai King Maha Vajiralongkorn wave flags and greet him in Bangkok on Dec. 5, 2020. Photo: Choltanutkun Tun-atiruj

King Maha Vajiralongkorn arrived with his wife, Queen Suthida, and family members. People waved, smiled, and chanted “long live the king!” and “we love the king!” There were LED neon banners with the slogan “we are the citizens of the king.”

The king, who usually lives in a villa in Germany, has spent more time back home this year. Months of pro-democracy protests have called for the monarch’s powers to be reduced and for his riches to be managed more transparently. The demands have been at the heart of anti-government demonstrations in Thailand where criticizing the royal family can result in jail time.

In response, experts say the 68-year-old monarch, who ascended to the throne after the death of his long-reigning father Bhumipol Adulyadej in 2016, has been more visible and approachable in increased interactions with the public. This year he has spent more time in the country than in 2019.

He has patted a man on the shoulder and called him “very brave” for supporting the monarchy, a rare up-close gesture for a member of the royal family, though in keeping with past public outings by his father. He also did his first interview in years, in which he said “we love them all the same” in response to a question about the protesters. And he took part in the opening of a train line in which he sat in a red-carpeted underground car.

Advertisement

Over the weekend, King Vajiralongkorn and Queen Suthida were seen giving a sit-down, casual speech wearing workout clothes to open LOVE camp for volunteers at the 11th Infantry Regiment (King's Guard). There he said he “was just like other human beings” and that on some days he feels “despondent or sad” too, according to the Bangkok Post.

“He has clearly embarked on a PR campaign to improve his image and appear more like the ‘working royal’ that his father was perceived to be,” said James Buchanan, a lecturer at Mahidol University International College who has also contributed to VICE World News.

“This has involved a series of public appearances to present him as a down-to-earth and approachable monarch. I don't think the strategy is designed to ‘win over’ the palace's detractors. I think it's more intended to shore up support amongst royalists, who are seen as crucial defenders of the monarchy.”

‘Support 112’

The efforts have coincided with separate government activity on social media, with political observers noting an uptick in pro-establishment hashtags circulating on Twitter, in a striking parallel with pro-democracy hashtags that fueled the protest movement. One of them has been “Support Article 112,” the law criminalizing insults against the Thai king, queen, heir apparent or regent with up to 15 years in prison. Another hashtag says “To love Thailand is to love and unite with each other.”

Some have also noticed a change in the way arch-royalist Prime Minister Prayut Chan-O-Cha conducts himself on television, including the way he places his hands, the softer style of speaking, and even a new haircut. The image stands in stark contrast to the gruff general who launched the 2014 coup and now heads the government following controversial elections last year.

Advertisement

“What we’ve seen the government doing is that they are trying to communicate with another group of people... to sell their product to another group of customers,” says Siriporn Trachoo, a PR and marketing expert who has had over 10 years of experience working with international companies.

“The fact that they are jumping on the Twitter bandwagon is to try to keep up with the new societal trends,” Siriporn told VICE world News.

In October, Twitter said it had removed hundreds of accounts linked to the Thai army, which denied that it was carrying out information operations through social media.

Father’s Day

The Thai king’s appearance earlier this month was on Dec. 5, the birthday of the previous king and also Thailand’s Father’s Day. In the country, the king’s image is associated with being the father of the people, and royalist supporters may sometimes refer to the king as “father.”

Though this particular event takes place annually, it felt more laid back than usual. It was held in a flat, grassy area in front of the royal palace, one of Bangkok’s most popular tourist spots. On the walking route there, the entire street was turned into a festival-like atmosphere with photos and portraits explaining the contributions the royal family have made to Thailand. 

Advertisement

“It is a blessing for my life to be that close to them [the royal family],” one woman said while riding the train to the scene. “And even if I couldn’t make it, I would light a candle at home while watching it live on TV.”

The exhibitions delved into how King Vajiralongkorn’s father Bhumibol was a super talented jazz musician and an agricultural visionary who helped Thais be sufficient. Most people wore yellow, the color associated with the king and by extension the monarchy. Journalists who covered the event were told to wear yellow ties.

File_002.jpeg

A woman takes a photo of a mural with the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej next to his son the current monarch, King Maha Vajiralongkorn, who can be seen in military uniform. Photo: Choltanutkun Tun-atiruj

Security was lighter than expected, though guards searched bags and asked participants to take off their masks and hold their ID next to their face. IDs were also scanned with a smartphone.

Portraits and prizes

Some companies and businesses were showcasing their products at the event. Others held a trivia game to answer questions about the previous king, and handed out small prizes.

Groups of families brought their children and friends chatting excitedly. Everyone waited patiently for the king to arrive. When he did, many held up portraits of him and his father, some with tears in their eyes and waving the Thai flag.

Traveling partly in a golf buggy with family, the king made his way through the crowd, smiling all the time and waving. Once through, he gave a speech on stage, calmly and slowly. There was a hush over the crowd, no one said a word, and many were glued to the television screens that were placed around the event. The evening ended at around 9:30PM.

000_8WJ4B8.jpg

Thailand's King Maha Vajiralongkorn (C) talks to Princess Bajrakitiyabha Mahidol (2nd L) as they sit with Queen Suthida (2nd R), Princess Sirivannavari Nariratana (R) and royal noble consort Sineenat Bilaskalayani (L), also known as Sineenat Wongvajirapakdi, in a golf buggy during a ceremony to commemorate the birthday of the late Thai king Bhumibol Adulyadej at Sanam Luang in Bangkok on Dec. 5, 2020. Photo: Lillian Suwanrumpha

It is difficult to say whether the charm offensive is working with Thai protesters, who have created memes putting the king’s words next to images of crackdowns at demonstrations. Several have also recently been summoned to answer charges under the royal defamation law. Gatherings continue to take aim at institutions loyal to the monarchy. A recent demonstration outside at Siam Commercial Bank, in which the royal family has a majority stake, and at the 11th Infantry Regiment (King’s Guard). 

The protest movement has slowed in recent weeks, but it doesn’t appear to be going anywhere, and recent comments indicate a resurgence. On Dec. 10, one of the leaders, Panusaya Sithijirawattanakul, announced on stage that it would be the last demonstration of this year. But in 2021, they would “increase the pressure.”