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‘Thailand is the land of compromise,’ Thai King says in rare public comments

The Thai King made his first public comments on the pro-democracy demonstrations that have gripped the country for more than four months in an exclusive rare joint interview with CNN and Channel 4 News during a royal function at the Grand Palace in Bangkok on Sunday.

Asked about what he would say to the protesters who have been on the streets calling for reform, King Vajiralongkorn told CNN “no comment,” before adding, “We love them all the same. We love them all the same. We love them all the same.”

Asked whether there was any room for compromise with protesters who are demanding a curb on his powers, Vajiralongkorn said that, “Thailand is the land of compromise.”

This is the first time that the 68-year-old monarch has spoken to foreign media since 1979 when he was Crown Prince.

In a rare move for the palace, members of the international press had been invited to sit among crowds of royalist supporters waiting to see the King. Usually, only the royal news teams are allowed to cover this kind of annual royal function, especially at the Grand Palace — a sign that the King may be keen to improve his image internationally as the mass protest movement poses a direct challenge to his rule.

Thailand's King Maha Vajiralongkorn waves from his limousine after officiating a graduation ceremony at Bangkok's Thammasat University on October 31, 2020.

King Vajiralongkorn had on Sunday taken part in a religious ceremony to mark the change of the season at the Grand Palace. The King changed the costume of the Emerald Buddha statue — the most important statue of the Buddha in Thailand — marking the official transition from the rainy season to winter.

Dressed in yellow, thousands of pro-monarchy supporters gathered at the palace and were greeted by King Vajiralongkorn, Queen Suthida and the King’s daughter Princess Sirivannavari.

The Princess told CNN that Thailand is a peaceful country, saying “we love the Thai people, no matter what.”

Student-led protests have been ongoing almost daily across Thailand since July, attracting tens of thousands of people calling for a new constitution, the dissolution of parliament and resignation of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha — the former army general who seized power in a 2014 coup.

A core demand of the demonstrations has been reform of Thailand’s powerful monarchy to ensure the King is answerable to the constitution.

It’s the biggest challenge to the ruling establishment in decades, with young people publicly breaking entrenched taboos on speaking openly about the royal family in public. Thailand has some of the world’s strictest lese majeste laws, and criticizing the King, Queen, or heir apparent can lead to a maximum 15-year prison sentence.

As Thailand grapples with an economic downturn exacerbated by measures to control the coronavirus pandemic, protesters have begun to scrutinize King Vajiralongkorn’s immense wealth and power.

Vajiralongkorn has consolidated his power by expanding his own appointed military unit, the King’s Guard. He has also vastly increased his personal wealth and transferred billions of dollars’ worth of royal assets held by the Thai Crown directly into his control.

Protesters say that Thailand cannot achieve true democracy until the top-down ruling establishment made up of the monarchy, military and wealthy political elites is reformed.

The King’s comments come as the political crisis in Thailand is in danger of morphing into a diplomatic problem with Germany, where the Thai King spends much of his time.

Last Monday, thousands of Thai protesters marched to the German embassy in Bangkok calling on the German government to investigate whether the King has conducted state business during his time in the country. In a letter submitted to the German Embassy in Thailand, protesters also requested the German government probe the King’s tax records.

Pro-democracy demonstrators march to the German Embassy in central Bangkok, Thailand, October 26, 2020.

Berlin has said it would be unacceptable for Vajiralongkorn to conduct politics from Germany and the country’s Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said it is continuing to look into his activities while on German soil.

“We are monitoring this long-term,” Maas said at a news conference last Monday. “It will have immediate consequences if there are things that we assess to be illegal.”

In an extraordinary session of parliament on Monday, Prayut dismissed calls from opposition parties to resign but indicated that the government supported amending the constitution.

The session failed to produce any results to ease the political crisis, instead the formation of a national reconciliation committee was proposed.

The King returned to Thailand in early October for a series of royal duties and official functions.

Dozens of protesters have been arrested under an emergency decree imposed shortly after the King’s arrival in Thailand. The emergency measures, which banned public gatherings of more than four people in the capital, followed more than a week of daily anti-government protests in Bangkok and other cities.

Charges have ranged from smaller offenses to more serious crimes such as sedition, which carries a maximum seven years in prison, and violating the Computer Crime Act. Two activists were arrested on charges of attempting violence against the Queen, after her motorcade was obstructed by anti-government crowds, and face a possible life sentence.

Prime Minister Prayut, with approval from the King, has since lifted those measures. But the demonstrations continue.

Jonathan Miller and Kocha Olarn reported from Bangkok, Thailand, Helen Regan wrote from Hong Kong. With additional reporting from Reuters.

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