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Bangkok – The late afternoon crowd of perhaps two thousand lining the driveway outside Bangkok’s Siriraj Hospital wore yellow and pink and were mostly middle-aged and older. But if the crowd was typified by greying locks and crows feet, the fleeting glimpse of the 85-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyedej, glancing impassively through a tinted Volkswagen window, was enough to spark the sort of overwrought frisson more often seen among teenage girls catching sight of some epicene pop star.
“Long live the king,” they chanted, before prostrating themselves as far as the tightly-packed street would allow, as the monarch and his wife Queen Sirikit were driven by, en route to Hua Hin, a coastal resort town about a 90 minute drive south of the hospital where the king has stayed for the past four years.
Some in the crowd had waited in the sweltering heat since morning, in anticipation of a glimpse at the object of their veneration. And in the moments after the royal couple had left, some shuddered and sobbed, red eyes dripping tears on shoulders as pairs of royal devotees embraced.
But not all in the crowd were old enough to remember much of the king’s 67-year reign. Student Nitvit Tenglertpabul had been sitting since 8 am on a rattan mat rolled across the baking tarmac. He told The Edge Review that he wanted to show the king that younger Thais respect him. “Though most of the people here today are older than me, a new generation of Thais loves the king,” Nitvit said. “I want him to see that today, when he goes from the hospital.”
The King’s discharge from hospital came a week before the Thai parliament debates a proposed amnesty bill, which royalists and opponents of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra see as a gambit to allow Thaksin, the elder brother of incumbent Yingluck Shinawatra, to return to Thailand without having to face jail time for graft charges. Thaksin was ousted in a coup in 2006 and subsequently convicted of corruption.
There are various proposed amnesty bills in play, meaning that is not yet clear exactly who will benefit, Thaksin included, if an amnesty bill is passed. Relatives of some of the almost 100 killed in deadly 2010 protests want culpable members of the military prosecuted – an outcome that would not go down well in a country known for coups — while former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejajjiva, charged with murder late last year over the 2010 violence, might or might not be included.
Thaksin, a populist who won elections based partly on support generated by social spending in the agrarian northeast Isaan region, has long been seen by royalists as a threat to the monarchy. Though ousted in the 2006 coup, his party won the next election after the putsch. But then, a mix of royalist protests and judicial fiat handed power to Abhisit in 2008, despite the Democrats not winning an election since 1992. Later, in 2011, a year after Bangkok’s bloody March-May 2010 upheavals, which started as a protest against the Abhisit government, Puea Thai won a handy election victory, with Yingluck Shinawatra the figurehead for a campaign branded “Thaksin thinks, Puea Thai does.”
As things stand, the royal succession will likely pass to Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, an outcome thought to be abhorrent to some in the royalist camp, partly because the king-in-waiting was previously seen as close to Thaksin. With the current king having spent 4 years in hospital before his discharge, and the queen visibly ailing (going by photos from last week’s royal cavalcade), the succession issue is looming large in Thai politics.
Thailand has possibly the world’s strictest lese-majeste (injured monarchy) laws, with 15-year jail terms for defaming the King or his immediate family. The August 1 refusal of bail for the 15th time for prisoner Somyot Preuksakasemsuk, a left-wing activist and editor of a journal accused of running content that insulted the monarchy, came just the day before King Bhumibol made his way to his palace at Hua Hin. It is unclear if lese-majeste detainees, numbering in the tens if not hundreds, will benefit from the proposed amnesty.
So perhaps surfing a hoped-for upsurge of royalist feeling among Thais, the flagging anti-Thaksin movement has again taken to the streets of Bangkok in an attempt to oust a democratically-elected government – albeit one they see as a proxy for their exiled bete-noire, Thaksin.
“Shinawatra get out,” they chanted, some hidden behind incongruously-named “V for Thailand” “Occupy”-style Guy Fawkes masks, at a demonstration last Sunday afternoon in a park close to Bangkok’s financial district and one of the city’s main red light districts.
The rally, where 3,000-4,000 protestors listened to fiery speeches into the evening, was the start of what organisers — calling themselves the People’s Democratic Force to Overthrow Thaksinism (PEFOT) – say will be a push to oust the government. In response, Thaksin tweeted his disdain for the group, sneering that they were old military types peeved about being passed over for promotion.
The awkwardly-acronymed PEFOT includes several royalist groups that have protested against the Puea Thai government – to little effect and to scant apparent public interest, with the number of protestors usually in the low thousands. That’s down sharply from the massive anti-Thaksin protests in 2006 and 2008.
“It’s the same old yellow shirts. Nothing new. They still want another coup d’etat. They failed again and again, but cannot come to terms with the fact that they cannot win [unless] by using force again,” Puangthong Pawakapan of Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University, told The Edge Review.
But that won’t be for want of trying, it seems. Banawit Kengrian, a former Thai navy admiral, told The Edge Review that he hopes that leaders of Thailand’s parliamentary opposition Democrat Party would join the protest later in the week.
The protests and the prospect of renewed upheaval in Bangkok prompted a run of coup rumours – not uncommon in a country that has seen 18 coups or attempted army takeovers since 1932, the year Thailand changed from an absolute to a constitutional monarchy. “This unfounded theory was just the personal imagination of some people who are out to confuse the public,” deputy Army spokesman Colonel Winthai Suwaree told Thai media. And the military, long used to impunity, will likely be on edge this week, after a Tuesday court ruling that said the army was responsible for the murder of six civilians at a Buddhist temple on May 19 2010, the final showdown during the redshirt protests that year.
For Banawit and his protest leaders, egging the army on is the name of the game. Banawit says pulling in mainstream opposition support, in tandem with the controversial parliamentary debate on the amnesty bill, will hopefully draw hundreds of thousands of Thais opposed to Thaksin onto the streets. “After the full crowd comes, the military will go like this, ‘get out of the government,’ to Yingluck,” he told The Edge Review, his right hand cocked in the shape of a gun to embellish the point.Show