Thailand’s king took a ride on Bangkok’s normally crowded underground train as part of an unprecedented charm offensive in the country, where pro-democracy protesters are demanding reforms to the powerful and rich monarchy.
King Maha Vajiralongkorn and Queen Suthida boarded an empty carriage as part of the inauguration of an extension to the Metropolitan Rapid Transit line in the capital on Saturday. In photos released by the palace, the royals were seen waving as they sat on cushioned seats, with officials in uniform crawling on red-carpeted flooring.
Outside the station, a large crowd of yellow-clad royalists greeted the couple, waving flags for both Thailand and the monarchy while taking pictures on their phones. The train ride is the latest in what appears to be an attempt by the normally elusive king to be more accessible to the public in Thailand, as images of swelling pro-democracy protests capture headlines around the world.
Since ascending to the throne after the death of his long-reigning father in 2016, the 68-year-old king has spent most of his time in Germany, making rare visits to Thailand for ceremonies. But he has been far more visible in recent months, walking among crowds, greeting supporters, and even doing his first interview with a mainstream media outlet in years in which he called Thailand the “land of compromise.”
In October, a video that showed the king patting the shoulder of a staunch royalist supporter and praising him for being “brave” went viral on social media.
Protesters are calling for the prime minister to resign, for a new constitution, and for the powers of the monarchy, which is immensely wealthy and protected by royal defamation laws, to be reduced. It is the first time in modern Thai history that the institution has been under such intense pressure and scrutiny.
It is unclear how effective the king’s PR campaign has been received, especially by young protesters who are much less tied to tradition and more connected globally through social media. On Saturday, demonstrators who gathered at Bangkok’s democracy monument turned their backs against a royal motorcade and flashed the three-fingered salute from the “The Hunger Games” movies, which has become the de facto protest gesture.
In October, thousands of pro-democracy protesters marched to the German embassy in Bangkok to ask the government to investigate whether the king made political decisions from German soil, where he has a villa in Bavaria.
Paul Chambers, a lecturer at Thailand’s Naresuan University, said Vajiralongkorn’s moves were reminiscent of his beloved father Bhumibol Adulyadej, who made trips outside palace walls to greet supporters, sometimes in far-flung provinces.
“Perhaps we see now that the current sovereign is trying to take a page out from his father’s strategy of practicing a charm offensive as a means of winning affection from Thai people,” he told VICE World News.
“That is smart royal diplomacy to help the palace remain at the helm of society.”