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“Very brave. Very brave. Very good. Thank you,” said King Rama X to a protester who raised a portrait of the late King Rama IX at a pro-democracy protest. This conversation has triggered questions in society about the attitude of the monarchy towards politics. It propelled #23ตุลาตาสว่าง to the twitter top trend.

Left to right: #23 October awakening hit the twitter top trend, King Rama X and Queen Sutthida greeting Thitiwat Tanagaroon, the one who raises the late King Rama IX portrait.

The hashtag, which translates as “23 October awakening or ‘opened eyes’”, refers to an incident on the night of 23 October as King Vajiralongkorn and Queen Suthida left the Grand Palace after paying tribute to King Rama V on the anniversary of his death, Chulalongkorn Day, where many people were waiting to meet them in person.

Among them was Suwit Thongprasert, formerly known as Buddha Issara, a leading figure in the People's Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC), the pro-junta movement which protested against the Yingluck Shinawatra government in 2013-2014.  Other prominent pro-monarchy figures were seen.

A report on Facebook names Thitiwat Tanagaroon as the person outside the palace wall and as the same person who raised a portrait of King Rama IX, confronting pro-democracy protesters at Central Pinklao on 20 Oct.

According to his Facebook post and recorded footage, the King and Queen passed where he was sitting. The King and the Queen greeted him after the Queen said to the King that he was the one who raised a portrait of King Rama IX at the protest.

The King tells him “Very brave. Very brave. Very good. Thank you.” Thitiwat’s video has gone viral, with comments both opposing and supporting the King’s action.

For some, the King’s words raise concern at a time of rising confrontation between pro-democracy protesters, who have been rallying since 18 July, calling mainly for constitutional amendments, the resignation of the Prime Minister and monarchy reform, and pro-monarchy groups, most of whom wear yellow shirts, the colour of the birthday of both King Rama IX and King Rama X. 

Some violence has occurred. A pro-democracy student protester was injured by pro-monarchy protestors who breached police lines separating between the 2 sides after verbal exchanges at Ramkhamhaeng University on 21 October.

Maj Gen Rienthong Nanna, the director of the family-owned Mongkutwattana Hospital and a well-known ultra-royalist influencer, characterized the incident as ordinary and the violence as a natural response toward people who infringe on the monarchy.

Awakening days

Under the principles of a constitutional monarchy, the monarch, as the ruler all citizens, whatever their individual political views, is placed in a position of neutrality above politics.  Thai constitutions have also prohibited members of the royal family from running for political positions and from voting in political elections. 

This restriction has been observed extremely broadly in Thailand.  In 2017, Princess Ubolratana, who lost her royal title in 1972 on her marriage to a foreign commoner, was nominated as candidate for Prime Minister by the Thai Raksa Chart Party.  Her candidacy was rejected and the party dissolved by the Election Commission of Thailand after the personal intervention of King Rama X in the form of an announcement in the Royal Gazette.

However, the Thai monarchy has, from time to time, seemed to take sides in street politics as evidenced by their interaction with people who express a pro-monarchy ideology. Some call these incidents an ‘awakening’ that clarifies their doubts. 

The most prominent such incident in recent times took place on 9 October 2008 when the then Queen Sirikit presided over the cremation ceremony of Angkhana ‘Nong Bow’ Radappanyawut, who had been killed by a police tear gas canister during a People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) yellow shirt protest against the pro-Thaksin government of the day. The PAD was calling on the King to use a constitutional prerogative to nominate a PM without any election.

During the ceremony, the Queen allowed the family of the deceased and Sondhi Limthongkul, the PAD leader, to have conversations with her, a breach of normal royal protocol. Many with different political ideologies, like the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD) or the red shirts, viewed this as a day of awakening.

Before that incident, Sondhi had, from time to time, claimed that the yellow shirts were supported by a ‘highly esteemed lady’. In 2006, Kamnoon Sidhisamarn, a former columnist and junta-appointed senator, also claimed that the PAD received blue scarves with the message “902...74...12 August 2006...mother of the land”.  Blue is the birthday colour of the Queen Mother and her birthday is celebrated as a national holiday on 12 August.

On 19 January 2014, Princess Chulabhorn, who had accompanied the Queen to the funeral of Angkhana Radappanyawut, assigned her representative to bestow a wreath to the funeral of Prakong Chuchan, a PDRC protester who died from a grenade thrown at a march. In 2013, she also gave a wreath to the funeral of Wasu Suchantabut, an anti-Thaksin protester who was shot dead during a clash at Thai-Japanese Stadium at Din Daeng during registration of candidates for an election that the pro-monarchy groups opposed and eventually prevented.

The funeral of Thanusak Rattanakot, another PDRC protester who died in a clash with police in February 2014, received a wreath from Princess Chulabhorn.

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