Thai king appeals for stability after violent protests

AFP , Thursday 5 Dec 2013

An anti-government protester holds a poster of Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej to celebrate his 86th birthday in Bangkok December 5, 2013 (Photo: Reuters)

Thailand's revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej urged the nation to work together for "stability" in a speech Thursday on his 86th birthday, marked by an easing of tensions after violent anti-government protests.

The kingdom remains on edge following several days of street clashes during demonstrations aimed at overthrowing Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and curbing the political influence of her brother Thaksin.

Demonstrators and police in Bangkok have been observing a temporary truce since Wednesday ahead of the birthday celebrations for King Bhumibol, who is treated as a near-deity by many Thais.

At a formal ceremony attended by dignitaries including the embattled premier, her political rivals and the nation's military heads, the king said the country "has been peaceful for a long time because everybody worked together".

"Every Thai should be aware of this and should perform their role for the benefit of the country, which is the stability and security of the country," he said in the speech broadcast on all television channels.

King Bhumibol, seen as a moral authority in the deeply divided nation, did not specifically mention the recent unrest.

The streets near his seaside palace were a sea of yellow Thursday as thousands of people wearing his signature colour turned out to celebrate in the central coastal town of Hua Hin, where he has lived since leaving hospital in August.

Kneeling supporters wept and shouted "Long live the King!" as the royal convoy made a brief tour of the town's streets before returning to the palace.

Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn and Yingluck both made speeches in praise of the monarch at the solemn birthday ceremony, the first to be held in Hua Hin.

Demonstrators, who cleaned up a key rally site in Bangkok in preparation for the birthday festivities, have vowed to pause in reverence on Thursday but to resume their street action on Friday.

Any political action or violence during the public holiday would be seen as a serious sign of disrespect.

A huge portrait of the monarch had been erected at Democracy Monument near the capital's Grand Palace, where the tub-thumping speeches of a month-long anti-government rally temporarily gave way to cheerful celebrations.

Hundreds gathered to watch the official birthday ceremony on big screens, cheering loudly at the appearance of the king, the world's longest-serving monarch.

But demonstrators, who erupted into angry jeers when Yingluck appeared on screen, were insistent that they had not abandoned their fight to oust the government.

"Tomorrow we will protest," said Khieu, who gave only one name and sported a large, neon yellow "We Love the King" headband.

"I will come back until we win victory for the Thai people," she added.

Police fired tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannon to repel protesters trying to occupy key ministries in the unrest at the weekend, which left five dead and over 200 injured.

The demonstrators, who still occupy the finance ministry and a key government complex on the outskirts of Bangkok, want to suspend the country's democracy in favour of an unelected "people's council".

Protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban, a former deputy premier, has pledged to continue the fight to rid Thailand of what he calls the "Thaksin regime".

An arrest warrant for insurrection was issued for Suthep on Monday and authorities have called for him to give himself up.

Thailand has been periodically rocked by sometimes bloody unrest since then-premier Thaksin was deposed by royalist generals in a coup seven years ago.

He went into exile in 2008 to avoid jail for a corruption conviction which he says was politically motivated, but critics say he still controls his sister behind the scenes.

The long-running political conflict broadly pits a Bangkok-based middle class and royalist elite backed by the military, against rural and working-class voters loyal to Thaksin, a billionaire businessman-turned-populist politician.

The recent protests were triggered by an amnesty bill, since abandoned by Yingluck's ruling party, which opponents feared would have allowed Thaksin to return home.

They mark the biggest clashes since dozens of people were killed in a crackdown on mass pro-Thaksin rallies in Bangkok three years ago.

King Bhumibol has suffered from a range of ailments in recent years, but earlier this year left the Bangkok hospital where he had lived since 2009 to move to his Hua Hin palace with Queen Sirikit.

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