By Jiraporn Kuhakan and Orathai Sriring
BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thai King Maha Vajiralongkorn's praise for a "very brave" man who held up a royal portrait at an anti-establishment rally has won acclaim from monarchists but scorn from demonstrators in a nation convulsed by three months of protests.
The king has made no public comment on the protests seeking the resignation of the prime minister and also increasingly targeting royal powers.
But on Friday, as he greeted thousands of people who had come to the Grand Palace to express devotion, he lauded a man introduced by Queen Suthida as the person who raised a picture of his late father, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, at a protest last week.
"Very brave, very brave, very good, thank you," the king said in a video circulated widely on social media.
The man, Thitiwat Tanagaroon, told Reuters he had waited from 2 p.m. until 9 p.m. to see the king, which was the highlight of his life.
"The king tapped his hand on my shoulder very hard when he said thank you ... I will put the shirt I wore in a frame," restaurant manager Thitiwat, 49, said by phone.
Support for the monarchy was not political because the institution was above the fray, he said. "The king cares about all people, no matter how rich or poor."
The incident drew a big response across Thailand.
Leader of the royalist Thai Pakdee (Loyal Thai) group, Warong Dechgitvigrom, said it demonstrated the monarchy's closeness to the people. "We are very touched," he posted on social media.
But demonstrators said the king's comment had clarified his opposition to them, with the #23OctEyesOpened hashtag tweeted over half a million times.
"Very brave, very brave, very good for such a clear expression," commented sarcastically one protest leader Tattep Ruangprapaikitseree, who has put less emphasis than others on the need for royal reform.
"The king has not been above political problems but always sits at the heart of the problems," commented another protest leader, Piyarat Chongthep.
The Royal Palace and government spokesman declined to comment.
Protesters seek the removal of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, a former junta leader they accuse of engineering an election last year to keep power. He denies the accusation.
The protests also seek changes to the constitution and to reduce the powers of the monarchy, which they say has helped enable decades of military domination.
Under Thailand's constitution, the monarchy is "enthroned in a position of revered worship" but in principle it does not engage in politics - a point the king underlined during elections last year.
James Buchanan, a lecturer at Bangkok's Mahidol University International College, said the king's comments marked his clearest intervention so far in Thailand's crisis. "I interpret it as signalling that the king acknowledges the challenge to his authority by the protests, but will not back down," he said.
(Additional reporting by Patpicha Tanakasempipat and Panu Wongcha-Um; Writing by Matthew Tostevin; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne)