Thousands of cyclists honour Thai king amid crackdown on royal critics

BANGKOK - Thousands of cyclists streamed through Bangkok on Friday to honour Thailand's revered but ailing king in an outpouring of loyalty that comes against a backdrop of an unprecedented crackdown on those perceived as critical of the monarchy. "Bike For Dad" is part of weeks of celebrations marking the birthday of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the world's longest reigning monarch, who turned 88 on Dec. 5.

Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, the king's only son and heir, led a throng of cyclists on a 29 km (18 miles) route starting in Bangkok's old quarter.

Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha and several cabinet ministers joined the procession of yellow-shirted riders. Yellow is the colour that represents the king. "Many people want to share this moment to send a sign to our king that we all love him very much," said Nusara Anuntavanichaya, 44, who sat with her six-year-old daughter on the route, along with thousands of yellow-clad spectators.

Many Thais see the king as a unifying figure in a country that has suffered bouts of violent upheaval over the past decade as rival power networks, one closely associated with the royalist military, vie to run the country.

The king is in frail health and has not been seen in public since Sept 1. He is in a Bangkok hospital, where he has spent much of the past six years, and where doctors in August treated him for what the Royal Household Bureau called "water on the brain", or hydrocephalus.

The cyclists passed the hospital on their route.

The king is a constitutional monarch, with no formal political powers, and long wielded immense influence.

The crown prince does not command the same devotion his father does, leading to apprehension about the succession. He smiled at cheering crowds as he cycled past on Friday.

The military, since seizing power in a May 2014 coup, has zealously pursued anyone perceived to have defamed the royals, including senior military and police officers, under draconian lese majeste, or royal insult, laws.

Two suspects have died in military custody during a police investigation of corruption involving "Bike For Dad" and another cycling event aimed at celebrating the royals.

Police said last week they had launched an inquiry into U.S. Ambassador to Thailand Glyn Davies after he criticised "lengthy and unprecedented" jail sentences for those found guilty of lese majeste.

Authorities said about 30,000 police and soldiers were on duty for the bike ride, which comes four months after a bomb at a city shrine killed 20 people.

Police said a people-smuggling gang angry about a crackdown was responsible. The blast came a day after a "Bike For Mom" cycling event in honour of Queen Sirikit.

Police said on Friday they had arrested a group of people who planned to "create a disturbance on an important day." They did notelaborate but Prayuth said authorities had foiled a plot to assassinate senior government officials at the procession.