BANGKOK (AP) — Under increasing pressure from protesters demanding reforms to the monarchy, Thailand's king and queen met with thousands of adoring supporters in Bangkok, mixing with citizens in the street after attending a religious ceremony inside the Grand Palace.
Crowds of royal devotees waited for hours Sunday outside the white walls of the storybook palace compound to greet them, carrying portraits of King Maha Vajiralongkorn and Queen Suthida and waving national flags.
The monarch waved to the crowd and smiled, surrounded by aides who crouched beside him as he walked. He paused briefly to make a rare comment when asked what he would say to the protesters who have been demanding reforms.
"We love them all the same," the Thai king told the UK's Channel 4. Asked if there was room to compromise with protesters, the king said, "Thailand is the land of compromise," and quickly turned to walk away.
The unprecedented challenge to decades of tradition has led royalists — mainly older Thais — to stage their own counter-rallies and to denounce the protesters for raising the issue, increasing the risk of violent confrontations or intervention by the army, which declares defense of the monarchy to be one of its main duties.
Virtually all of the supporters in the crowd Sunday wore yellow shirts, signifying loyalty to the crown.
"I came here today led by my heart," said 44-year-old businesswoman and astrological consultant Pakawarin Damrongrotthawee. "Born as Thais, we must be grateful to the monarchy. If anyone wants to protest the government, they can do it. But they must not touch the monarchy."
As the smiling royal couple emerged, members of the crowd shouted "Long live the King!" and kissed the monarch's feet as the couple passed, several wiping them with a towel. Some onlookers reached out to touch his hand, and gave the couple yellow roses as they went by. Other members of the royal family followed in their wake.
It was the latest of several such events in Thai cities and came after another week in which student-led demonstrations sought change to the powerful royal institution. Supporters of the monarchy among the public at large have failed on their own to work up the same excitement and crowds as the pro-democracy demonstrators.
But the photogenic opportunities of a royal walkabout, with crowds drawn by the rare chance to get up close and personal with the king, are a way of showing that many Thais appear satisfied with the monarchy as it is. Members of the media were also allowed unusually close access.
"This is my first time to come to greet the king," said 55-year-old Siraseth Limpisuree. "I would like to encourage him, as a group of Thai people has a wrong attitude toward the monarchy. I want them to understand that the monarchy is part of Thai society and Thailand can never survive without the monarchy. We should not get the monarchy involved in political chaos. The government can be changed, but the monarchy should not be reformed as they (the protesters) demand."
The student-led protesters charge that the palace exercises undue power and influence for a constitutional monarchy, and seek to have it made more accountable under law. They deny they want to see the royal institution abolished.
The demands to reform the monarchy have shattered a taboo in a way that would have seemed unthinkable just a few months ago. The royal institution has traditionally been presented as the nation's cornerstone and above criticism.
But the institution's foundations were shaken by the death in 2016 of Vajiralongkorn's father, King Bhumibol, after seven decades on the throne, leaving it vulnerable to criticism, despite a strict law against defaming the monarchy that can bring prison terms of up to 15 years.
The protests began in earnest in July and originally demanded political changes — including new elections and a more democratic constitution — but parallel demands for reform of the monarchy have since taken center stage.
Thousands had marched to the German Embassy in Bangkok last Monday to appeal to Chancellor Angela Merkel's government to investigate whether Thailand's king has exercised political power during his extended stays in Bavaria.
On Thursday, protesters laid out a red carpet on a major city street and staged a satirical fashion show, parodying an event being held at the same time by Princess Sirivannavari Nariratana, a daughter of the king who is a fashion designer, at a luxury hotel nearby.
By CHALIDA EKVITTHAYAVECHNUKUL and TASSANEE VEJPONGSA Associated Press
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