Thai anti-government protesters and royalist supporters of King Maha Vajiralongkorn staged rival shows of force on either side of a Bangkok street on Wednesday with political tension growing after three months of demonstrations.
Several hundred protesters at the Democracy Monument repeated their call for the departure of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, a former junta leader, and a new constitution. They gave their trademark three-finger salute.
Just a couple of dozen metres away, hundreds of royalists assembled with members of security forces – all of them clad in the royal yellow colour – hours before a royal motorcade was due to pass along the road.
Despite one brief fistfight, the two sides largely kept apart, but the standoff revived fears of trouble in a country that suffered a decade of street violence between supporters and opponents of the establishment before a 2014 coup.
Royalist leader Buddha Issara said the protesters could demand democracy, but must not call for reforms of the monarchy, as some have done.
“They must not touch on the institution,” he told reporters. “We will not accept any booing or raising three or four fingers during the motorcade as well.”
Protesters made a rare direct challenge to the king on Tuesday, chanting at his passing convoy after 21 activists were arrested during scuffles with police. Police said detainees would be charged with public order offences on Wednesday.
The protests have become the greatest challenge in years to a ruling establishment dominated by the army and the palace.
“We are out here to fight, with respect to all the people as well as the monarchy,” protest leader Anon Nampa told the protesters. “We’re out here to call for a reform to the institution to better the country.”
Government spokesman Anucha Burapachaisri said police had been told to avoid needless confrontation. Police said nearly 15,000 officers had been deployed to keep order.
The royal palace has not responded to any requests for comment on the protests or the protesters’ demands.
Pro-royalist demonstrations have been small, compared with the tens of thousands who joined the biggest anti-government demonstration in September, but Wednesday’s gathering of royalists was much bigger.
Bangkok city trucks offloaded hundreds of royalists, many with flags and pictures of the king.
“The establishment in Thailand plays a very dangerous game, mobilizing state security forces and ultra-royalist groups to confront with the pro-democracy demonstrators,” said Prajak Kongkirati, a law professor at Thammasat University.
Among the anti-government protesters’ demands are for curbs on the constitutional powers of the king and for him to transfer back the personal control he took of some army units and a palace fortune valued in the tens of billions of dollars..