Thailand’s King Maha Vajiralongkorn and Queen Suthida greet royalist supporters outside the Grand Palace in Bangkok on Nov. 1, 2020 after presiding over a religious ceremony at a Buddhist temple inside the palace. Photo: Lillian SUWANRUMPHA / AFP
Thailand’s powerful king said “we love them all the same” in his first comments on the young pro-democracy protesters calling for widespread reforms in the country, which he called the “land of compromise.”
The remarks were stunning for Thais not used to seeing the elusive King Maha Vajiralongkorn answer questions from a journalist. It was also believed to be Vajiralongkorn’s first interview with a mainstream media outlet since ascending to the throne in 2016 after the death of his long-reigning father.
One of the wealthiest monarchs in the world, Vajiralongkorn is protected by royal defamation laws in Thailand that carry maximum jail terms of 15 years. But months-long demonstrations have chipped away at taboos surrounding discussion of the 68-year-old, who spends most of the year in a villa in Germany but has been back home for several weeks attending ceremonies.
It was during a walkabout with cheering and kneeling supporters outside Bangkok’s Grand Palace late Sunday night that the king surprisingly stopped to answer questions being shouted over the din by Channel 4’s Jonathan Miller, a longtime Southeast Asia correspondent.
“Your Majesty, Sir, these people love you. But what do you say to the protesters who’ve been on the streets who want reform?”
“I have no comment,” Vajiralongkorn said at first, with Queen Suthida standing by his side, her arm linked with his.
“No comment?” Miller asked.
Vajiralongkorn smiled and then said the same phrase three times: “We love them all the same. We love them all the same. We love them all the same.”
“Is there any room for compromise Sir?” Miller said.
“Thailand is the land of compromise,” Vajiralongkorn said, before losing the smile and quickly turning away as Queen Suthida waved and gave a thumbs up after saying “We also love you! We also love you!”
The youth-led movement in Thailand wants the political influence of the king to be reduced under a new constitution. They also want the royalist-aligned prime minister Prayut Chan-O-Cha, who led a coup in 2014 and won a tainted election in 2019, to resign but he has refused.
Last month, thousands of Thai protesters delivered a letter to the German embassy in Bangkok asking the European country to lead a probe into possible political descisions the king has made while abroad, which would not be allowed under German law.
That and other gestures of defiance from protesters, including flashing the iconic three-fingered salute of the movement at a royal motorcade, have eroded the customary silence around discussing the king.
But the lack of a large-scale crackdown on protesters, attempts at concession by the government, and the willingness of the Vajiralongkorn to give an interview to a foreign outlet could suggest an attempt to change the narrative and appear more open.
“The question on compromise came from the media. The answer was part of his charm offensive to persuade the media that all is fine in Thailand,” Paul Chambers, a lecturer and Thai politics expert at Naresuan University, told VICE News. But he added that the “apparent guarantee of compromise” ignores the fact that the king has separately thanked hardened right-wingers for supporting him during the upheaval.
Some of the protest leaders dismissed the significance of the remarks, while others turned it into a meme, posting tweets of arrests and clashes with police under the title “land of compromise?”
But the interview is still still an unprecedented turn of events for the media-shy monarch in a country where door-stopping him was previously unthinkable.
Even before becoming king, Vajiralongkorn rarely gave interviews to the foreign press or discussed his personal life in detail, with the exception of a BBC documentary in 1979 when he was asked about the pressures he faced (his answers come around 46 minutes in) as Crown Prince.
“It is difficult to say what it is like to be a fish when you are a fish, or what it is like to be a bird when you are a bird,” he said.
Via Vice News