BANGKOK – BANGKOK (AP) — Thailand's ailing king spoke publicly Monday for the first time since his country descended into political chaos, but the man seen by many as the best hope for securing a peaceful resolution failed to address the deadly crisis that has shut down parts of the capital.
Speaking at the hospital where he has been for more than seven months, King Bhumibol Adulyadej told newly appointed judges that they should faithfully carry out their duties and help keep the country stable.
"In the country, there might be people who neglect their duties, but you can set an example that there are those who perform their duties strictly and honestly," the 82-year-old king said.
At least 26 people have been killed and nearly 1,000 wounded since anti-government protesters known as the Red Shirts began occupying parts of Bangkok in mid-March, closing down five-star hotels and shopping malls and devastating the country's vital tourism industry.
"The king's words will be interpreted by some as a statement of support for those who have been arguing that the police and military have been failing in their duties to maintain peace, law and order," said Prof. Kevin Hewison, a Thai studies specialist at the University of North Carolina. "But as is often the case in recent times, his words can be interpreted in multiple ways."
The king's lack of a clear statement signaled he was not prepared to take a public role in resolving the crisis, as he did in 1973 when he stopped bloodshed during a student uprising and again in 1992 during antimilitary street protests. As a constitutional monarch, he has no formal political power, but the respect he commands makes him one of the country's few credible mediators.
The U.S.-born Bhumibol, the world's longest-reigning monarch, has been hospitalized since Sept. 19, when he was admitted with fatigue and loss of appetite. The palace has said he is recovering from a lung inflammation, but not explained why he has been hospitalized for so long.
"For many, what may be more significant is yet another display of a king in declining health and the specter of succession adding to the politically chaotic times that seem set to drag on for some time," said Hewison, referring to unease about whether the king's heir-apparent, Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, can keep the monarchy in its same exalted position.
The government said Monday it hopes to resolve the problem peacefully, despite a breakdown in negotiations, but added it could not allow the protests to go on indefinitely.
"We're required to keep peace and return the area to normalcy," government spokesman Panitan Wattanayagorn said.
The Red Shirts consist largely of poor, rural supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and pro-democracy activists who opposed the military coup that ousted him in 2006 on corruption allegations. The group — formally called the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship — believes that Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva's government — backed by the urban elite — is illegitimate, having been helped into power by the country's powerful military.
The conflict has been characterized by some as class warfare, and a pro-establishment group known as the Yellow Shirts has demanded that authorities crack down on the demonstrators — even implying they might take matters into their own hands.
"The government has the responsibility to protect the people, but instead shows its weakness and inability to enforce the law," Suriyasai Katasila, a leader of the Yellow Shirts, said Monday.
The Yellow Shirts, formally known as the People's Alliance for Democracy, in 2008 took over the prime minister's office for three months and Bangkok's two airports for a week to try to force two pro-Thaksin prime ministers from office. Their self-appointed mission is to keep Thaksin from returning to power.
Many Red Shirt supporters around and outside the capital tried Monday to prevent police reinforcements from moving into Bangkok.
In at least six places around the country, Red Shirt supporters scattered nails along roads, set up checkpoints and searched vans and buses for police officers headed to the capital.
Some police heading to Bangkok were forced to return to their bases, while police in the central province of Phitsanulok, impatient after a five-hour standoff with the Red Shirts, broke through a cordon of protesters who hurled rocks and wooden sticks at them, Thai media reported.
While there was no violence in the central Bangkok shopping area where protesters remained camped for a 24th day, an explosion injured eight people late Sunday near the home of former Prime Minister Banharn Silapa-archa, who is allied with the ruling coalition.
Thaksin, who fled Thailand ahead of a conviction on corruption charges, said Monday that he is in contact with the protesters and defended their cause.
"We just fight for democracy. Let them fight for democracy and justice," he said in Montenegro, one of several countries that have offered him passports, generally in return for investments by the telecommunications billionaire. His appearance belied rumors in Bangkok that he was dead or critically ill.
The government appears to have left itself few immediate ways out of the crisis.
Over the weekend, Prime Minister Abhisit rejected a softened deadline for Parliament's dissolution by the Red Shirts, dashing hopes for a peaceful end to the standoff. He said the priority is stopping "terrorists" whom the government hold responsible for violence associated with the protesters.
There remains the possibility that the courts could force a resolution. The Election Commission has ruled that Abhisit's Democrat Party violated the electoral law in two 2005 cases, and it could be dissolved if the Constitutional Court concurs it is guilty. One of the two cases was submitted to the court on Monday.
Associated Press writers Predrag Milic in Podgorica, Montenegro, and Ravi Nessman and Thanyarat Doksone in Bangkok contributed to this report.