Thais take political time-out to honor country's revered monarch on Coronation Day
BANGKOK – BANGKOK (AP) — Thais put aside their political animosity Wednesday to honor the country's ailing monarch on the 60th anniversary of his coronation, and his rare public appearance inspired thousands lining the streets to chant "Long Live the King!"
The highly revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej emerged in a wheelchair from a Bangkok hospital to preside over the ceremonies. The 82-year-old king, the world's longest reigning monarch, has been hospitalized for the past nine months with what the palace initially described as a lung inflammation.
The monarch made no comment on the paralyzing stalemate pitting Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva's government against protesters who have occupied parts of Bangkok and built barricades over the past eight weeks to demand the premier's resignation. Clashes with soldiers and other violence have killed 27 people and injured nearly 1,000.
Many Thais had hoped that the king, who ascended the throne in 1946 but was officially crowned on May 5, 1950, might broker a peaceful solution to the crisis, as he did in 1973 when he stopped bloodshed during a student uprising and again in 1992 during antimilitary street protests.
The king has not publicly discussed the crisis. Still, Abhisit and the anti-government Red Shirt protesters have edged closer to a compromise in the past few days.
Lining the streets from his hospital to the Grand Palace, crowds of Thais waved royal flags and many wore yellow — the color symbolizing respect for the king. Shouts of "Long Live the King!" surrounded his motorcade as he headed to the palace. Inside the Throne Hall, orange-robed Buddhist monks chanted as the king and Queen Sirikit sat on golden thrones.
Abhisit was among the top political, military and royal figures who participated in the ceremonies. All wore ceremonial white uniforms.
In the evening, the government did use the occasion as part of their campaign to get the Red Shirts to end their protest. As had earlier been announced, they sent text messages by SMS to mobile phones in the protest area, with the message: "Love the King, Care about the Country, Together We Can Build National Unity. CRES." The CRES is the government's Center for the Resolution of the Emergency Situation, responsible for suppressing the demonstration.
On Tuesday, the Red Shirt protesters said they welcomed the prime minister's latest proposal to end the crisis but needed more details before dismantling their protest camp in the capital's main commercial district.
Pressure has been growing on both sides to end the stalemate, which has decimated the country's lucrative tourism industry and drained the energies of the central government.
While an immediate end to the crisis was not expected, representatives of both sides said Wednesday's celebration of Coronation Day should be used to further national reconciliation.
Inside their barricaded protest zone, the Red Shirts held a ceremony featuring the blessings of Buddhist monks.
The protesters have called on the government to stop linking them to an alleged violent anti-monarchy movement. Accusations of disloyalty to the king are political poison in Thailand, where it is a crime to insult the monarchy.
Abhisit, who had previously demanded that the protesters leave the streets before a compromise could be reached, on Monday presented a plan for rescuing Thailand from the political morass in which it has been trapped since a 2006 military coup deposed Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra on corruption allegations.
The plan includes an offer of new elections on Nov. 14 — about a year before Abhisit's term would end — if the Red Shirts stop their protests.
Veera Musikapong, a Red Shirt leader, said after meeting with other protest leaders Tuesday that they "unanimously welcomed the reconciliation process" but did not commit themselves to abandoning their street demonstration.
Protest leaders want Abhisit to specify the date that Parliament would be dissolved ahead of the elections.
There was no immediate response from the government.
The timing of the dissolution has been a crucial issue, and the Red Shirts rejected Abhisit's earlier offer to dissolve Parliament by the end of the year. Abhisit has said he wants enough time in office to pass a national budget for next year. But both sides want to be in control when a key reshuffle of top military posts occurs in September.
The Red Shirt demonstrators — consisting of supporters of Thaksin and others who believe the coup was a blow to democracy — accuse Abhisit of taking power illegitimately through back-room deals and military pressure on legislators.
Abhisit said his five-point plan takes into account the protesters' main grievances. It includes respect for the monarchy, reforms to resolve economic injustice, free but responsible media to be overseen by an independent watchdog agency, independent investigations of violent incidents connected with the protests, and amendment of the constitution to be more fair to all political parties.
Associated Press writers Jocelyn Gecker, Thanyarat Doksone and Denis D. Gray contributed to this report.