Thai king leads thousands to remember late father's birthday

BANGKOK (AP) — Thousands of yellow-clad supporters greeted Thailand’s king on Saturday as he led a birthday commemoration for his revered late father, the latest in a series of public appearances at a time of unprecedented challenge to the monarchy from student-led protesters.

King Maha Vajiralongkorn, accompanied by Queen Suthida, waved as he arrived at Bangkok's Sanam Luang ceremonial ground. Supporters of the monarchy held Thai and yellow royal flags to welcome them, with some cheering “Long live the king.” The crowd wore yellow shirts, the color associated with the royal institution.

The king led the crowd in a candlelit tribute to his late father, whose giant image was at the center of the stage set up outside the ornate Grand Palace.

Although King Bhumibhol Adulyadej died four years ago, his birthday remains on the national calendar as Fathers’ Day.

He reigned for 70 years, acquiring a reputation for selfless work in the service of his country, an image endlessly propagated by newspapers and state media. He was widely respected, a status reinforced by strict lese majeste laws that can bring jail terms of up to 15 years for any comment or action deemed defamatory toward the monarchy.

But since his death in 2016, and the accession of Vajiralongkorn, the monarchy’s standing has been under threat, with dissent on the rise.

In August this year, pro-democracy students smashed the taboo on public criticism by unveiling a 10-point demand for sweeping reform to make the powerful and wealthy institution more transparent and accountable.

Support for the move has swelled, with thousands embracing the call at a series of mass rallies, alongside demands for a new constitution and the resignation of the prime minister.

In apparent response, Vajiralongkorn has undertaken a wave of public appearances that have served as rallying points for thousands of conservative Thais outraged at the challenge to traditional norms and determined to defend them.

In contrast to his usual stern demeanor, the king has been more relaxed at the events, presenting a softer persona, while also thanking and encouraging those who have stood up for him.

At one royal walkabout in November, he appeared to hint that there could be compromises with those demanding reform, but protest leaders have dismissed that as meaningless.

In recent days, at least 12 protest leaders have been charged with royal defamation under the lese majeste laws. The laws had been suspended for the past three years after Vajiralongkorn told the government he did not want to see them used.