Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej called on his people to do their duty for the good of the country in a birthday address on Thursday, but avoided direct reference to the latest political turmoil roiling the capital.
Protesters are attempting to bring down the government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and five people have been killed in clashes over the past week. The two sides reached a truce to mark the king’s birthday.
The 86-year-old king is the only monarch most Thais have ever known and has been a father figure who has defused previous crises. His words were awaited with expectation. The world’s longest-reigning monarch, who left hospital in July after a four-year stay, looked sombre and spoke slowly, pausing at times, as he read out his address.
He referred to people doing their duty to support each other.
“All Thais should realise this point a lot and behave and perform our duties accordingly, our duty for the sake of the public, for stability, security for our nation of Thailand,” the king told a gathering of the country’s top leaders.
The birthday ceremony was held at the king’s seaside palace in Hua Hin, about 190 km (118 miles) south of Bangkok, where he moved with Queen Sirikit when he left hospital. Among those in attendance in formal suits and dress uniforms was the prime minister, the heads of the armed forces and police, top bureaucrats and the leader of the opposition.
The queen, who suffered a stroke in July last year, was not seen in television pictures.
The prime minister paid her respects and Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn offered his father birthday wishes and promised to fulfil the king’s wishes.
The protests in Bangkok are the latest eruption of a conflict that pits the Bangkok-based royalist establishment against mostly poorer Thais loyal to Yingluck and her brother, former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, who was toppled by the military in 2006 and lives in self-imposed exile.
The establishment and urban middle class have accused Thaksin of undermining the monarchy, which he denies.
Thaksin’s largely rural supporters swept his sister to power in 2011 election and there’s little doubt she would win again if she were to dissolve parliament and call a snap election, which she has declined to do.
Protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban, a silver-haired former deputy prime minister from the pro-establishment Democrat Party,has called for a “people’s coup” to throw out the “Thaksin regime”. He has proposed a vaguely defined “people’s council” of appointed “good people” to replace the government.
Yingluck has rejected that as unconstitutional.
One analyst said the king appeared reluctant to get drawn into the mess. “I believe the king understands the conundrum,” said Thak Chaloemtiarana, a Thai academic at Cornell University in the United States. “He must also worry about his own influence and how far it can go.”
The crown prince expressed his concern about the political unrest last week and urged people to settle differences peacefully. But that did not stop the violence.
“If the king did this and nothing happened, it could diminish his aura and legacy,” said Thak. In theory, Thailand’s monarchy is above political division. The king is a constitutional monarch, with no formal political powers but immense influence. But despite the king’s silence over recent years of turmoil, the palace has been drawn in. Thaksin’s supporters believe some of the king’s advisers instigated the 2006 coup in which Thaksin was ousted.
They also cite Queen Sirikit’s attendance at the funeral of an anti-Thaksin protester killed in clashes with police in 2008. That fuelled suspicion of royal backing for Thaksin’s opponents. The divide between the poor and what they see as the establishment elite represents a collapse of a traditional order in Thailand at a time when people have begun to broach the hitherto taboo topic of succession.
The crown prince does not command the same devotion his father does and some in the establishment elite are nervous about the prince’s suspected links with Thaksin in the past and the influence that that connection could give Thaksin.
The crown prince’s recent appeal for people to settle differences peacefully was issued through Bangkok police chief Kamronwit Thoopkrachang, a staunch Thaksin ally. “But getting rid of this government is not the answer,” said Thak. “The genie is out of the box and the old power elite must change and learn how to live with current political realities.”