The motorcade carrying King Maha Vajiralongkorn was confronted by pro-democracy protesters in Thailand on Wednesday as it passed through a rally in Bangkok.
The king, who spends most of his time abroad but has returned from Germany for several weeks, travelled in a car alongside Queen Suthida through a crowd of peaceful protesters, who chanted and raised their hands in the three-finger salute.
The gesture is thought to have been inspired by the Hunger Games films in which it is used as a symbol of unity and defiance against tyranny.
The protesters were pushed back by ranks of police, keeping them off the road and separating them from a rival rally by supporters of the monarcy.
They pro-democracy protesters called for curbs on the king’s powers and for the resignation of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha.
The protests on Wednesday follow months of escalating tension in the country.
The royal couple were on their way to a Buddhist ceremony on Ratchadamnoen Avenue, where demonstrations had took place earlier in the day, before the protesters moved on towards Government House.
Supporters of the monarchy, dressed in t-shirts in royal yellow colour, staged rival protests in the capital, with some filmed violently attacking the pro-democracy protesters. Some witnesses accused the government of disguising police as royalist demonstrators.
The two sides gathered separately along Ratchadamnoen Avenue on Wednesday afternoon and were kept largely apart by police. The anti-government protesters linked arms and marched chanting “Prayuth, get out!” and “Long live the people!”
The protesters were prevented from reaching Government House by what appeared to be ranks of royalist supporters wearing yellow t-shirts who linked arms and shouted insults at the protesters.
“We want to show that we love the king,” 47-year-old Sirilak Kasemsawat told AFP news agency, accusing the pro-democracy movement of wanting to “overthrow” the monarchy – a charge the movement has always denied.
“We’re not asking them to be toppled, forgotten, or not to be respected,” said Dear Thatcha, a pro-democracy protester. “We’re just asking them to change with us. Our country needs to adapt to many things, and the monarchy is one of the issues that needs to be adapted as well,” she said.
The growing student-led protest movement, which began in July, has become the greatest challenge in years to Thailand’s ruling establishment. Protests over the weekend in the capital were some of the largest in years, with thousands defying authorities to gather and demand change.
Authorities say 18,000 people joined Saturday’s demonstration, although others gave higher figures. Many stayed to continue the protest into Sunday before dispersing.
The protesters’ calls for royal reform are particularly sensitive in Thailand, where criticism of the monarchy is punishable by long prison sentences.
Thailand has a long history of political unrest and protest, but a new wave began in February after a court ordered a fledgling pro-democracy opposition party to dissolve.
Protests were re-energised in June when prominent pro-democracy activist Wanchalearm Satsaksit went missing in Cambodia, where he had been in exile since the 2014 military coup.
Demonstrators have demanded that the government headed by Prime Minister Prayuth, a former army chief who seized power in the coup, be dissolved; that the constitution be rewritten; that the authorities stop harassing critics. (Source: BBC)