Thai king's PR gambit ups stakes in war for support amid protests

Thailand's King Maha Vajiralongkorn and Queen Suthida wave to well-wishers after a ceremony to celebrate the brithday of Queen Sirikit, the Queen Mother, near the Grand Palace in Bangkok, Thailand, Aug 12, 2020.
PHOTO: Thailand Royal Household Bureau via Reuters

When Thai King Maha Vajiralongkorn gave impromptu comments to a foreign television reporter amid a sea of royalists on Sunday, social media reeled with shock at the break with generations of tradition – although the youth-dominated protest movement was quick to react to the sudden royal PR gambit.

Local journalists were surprised at how reporter Jonathan Miller, representing CNN and Britain’s Channel 4 news, thrust a microphone at the King, who was greeting thousands of supporters outside the Grand Palace in the old part of Bangkok, and politely asked the monarch for his thoughts on the path ahead for Thailand given near-daily pro-democracy rallies playing out as the kingdom grapples with a flailing economy.

“I have no comment,” the monarch started out by saying, over the din of cries of “Long Live the King”.

But then, he added: “We love them all the same, we love them all the same,” referring to protesters calling for sweeping reforms including limiting the role of the ultra-rich monarchy, which is protected by tough lese majeste laws.

To Miller’s question about whether there was room for compromise between pro-democracy protesters and the Thai government, he replied: “Thailand is the land of compromise”.

Thailand's King Maha Vajiralongkorn and Princess Sirivannavari Nariratan, next to Queen Suthida, greeting royalists at The Grand Palace in Bangkok on Sunday, November 1. 
PHOTO: Reuters

The King’s remarks immediately sparked satirical memes by the pro-democracy movement and its international supporters – namely, the growing overseas “Milk Tea Alliance” of young Hong Kong and Taiwan pro-democracy activists, as well as K-pop fan accounts that now promote protest-related hashtags and undermine pro-monarchy hashtags.

Free Youth, a group that has been active in protests, posted a graphic online of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, a former general, and his long-time political ally Prawit Wongsuwon holding hands with the caption “Thailand is the land of compromise” – a satirical reference to how the Thai constitution has been brushed aside at the convenience of generals 13 times since the 1932 revolution.

Panumas Singprom, one of Free Youth’s founders, was among the creators of the graphic and other memes. “In this political moment every second is valuable. I have to compute fast and be nimble,” said the 21-year-old.

Voranai Vanijiaka, a political analyst and editor in chief of Thai politics site described the King’s stunning move to enter the political fray as “a war of public relations between the pro-democracy movement and the establishment regime to see who actually has the people on their side” and the “numerical legitimacy”.

Even as both sides were ratcheting up the rhetoric in a bid to galvanise support, former prime minister Chuan Leekpai was urging reconciliation between the two sides.

Chuan, who now serves as speaker of the Thai parliament, is heading a parliament-proposed committee that will seek the services of four former prime ministers and several representatives of various political parties in finding ways to defuse the current stand-off, according to a Bloomberg news report on Tuesday.

Crisis management

Thailand is witnessing jaw-dropping moments on a weekly basis, but the royals choosing to match youth protesters’ unprecedented scrutiny of them with a charm offensive of their own has fuelled intense discussion.

In normal times, the palace tightly controls access to royal events, and officials choreograph everything from the angles allowed for filming the king to the size and proximity of the cameras.

But on Sunday, Maha Vajiralongkorn, sweating slightly in a tight white royal uniform, wound his way through thousands of prostrating royalists, beaming at them and signing royal portraits.

He was flanked by an entourage of family, inner circle courtiers and guards, including his fourth wife, Queen Suthida, tightly gripping his arm as though she was navigating their movements and flashing wide smiles at the crowd, and his daughter from a previous marriage, 33-year-old Princess Sirivannavari, who seemed to be acting as his media handler.

The official royal consort Sineenat Wongvajirapakdi – known as “Koi” – was also present. Her appointment in July 2019 was seen by critics as one of the signs of a constitutional monarch adopting the vestiges of Thailand’s absolute rulers.

She was summarily dismissed in disgrace in October 2019 and vanished from the public eye for several months before being reinstated in September in an episode relayed in the Royal Gazette, a palace mouthpiece.

Thais also pored over the significance of how the queen and consort were being seen together, questioning if their interactions with the public were a form of “crisis management”.

“This image of the queen and consort together [could be] a sign that the palace is willing to break taboo and convention as it might be seen,” said Sarinee Achavanuntakul, a social critic and co-founder of activist group Thai Netizen Network.

Thailand's Princess Sirivannavari Nariratana reacts after a religious ceremony to commemorate the death of King Chulalongkorn, known as King Rama V, at the Grand Palace in October. 
PHOTO: Reuters

Sirivannavari, a designer and a fixture at fashion shows across the world, is also being used to present the younger face of the monarchy with active social-media accounts.

In a night of impromptu public relations manoeuvres, the king was filmed apparently urging the princess back to the TV crew after his brief answers.

“This country is peaceful” an animated Sirivannavari told the camera. “This is the real love, as you can see … right?” she added emphatically.

Owning the narrative

The presentation of the king’s more accessible public persona has fired up Thailand’s royalists, including celebrity actors and monks all too willing to pledge their allegiance to him.

The monarch, who normally lives in Germany, has also remained in Thailand for the longest stint since his reign began in 2016.

“He’s truly compassionate,” Kla Party lawmaker and former Thai finance minister Korn Chatikavanij posted on his Facebook page following Sunday’s walkabout. “The monarch is truly the beloved king of the Thai people.”

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Analysts say the stream of public appearances were much needed after protesters in mid-October greeted a royal motorcade carrying Queen Suthida with the three-fingered anti-authoritarian salute from the Hunger Games movie series and chants of “my tax, my tax”, in general reference to royal largesse by one of the richest monarchies in the world.

After all, set-piece public events with crowds of mainly older adoring yellow shirts – people wearing royal colours – play well on Thai TV, reinforcing the age-old concept of the monarchy as the central pillar of Thai society.

The protesters say it is clear this is just a PR campaign to recast the king as a compromise figure, pointing out how there have been no promises of any serious reforms and that key protests leaders are still facing legal charges ranging from obstructing roads to sedition.

“The establishment is not really winning back the legitimacy of the monarchy,” Panumas said. “It’s just for a personal gain.”

The intention is instead to trigger royalist reflexes in a country polarised like never before. This has in turn sparked fears of clashes between royalist supporters and protesters on the streets as emotions run high.

To Voronai, the political analyst, the king’s strategy comes down to one overarching concern: “If the monarchy doesn’t want to sacrifice royal powers … then the king has to step out and make sure that the monarchy has public support.”

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.