Fri, Sep 07, 2018 - Page 5 News List

Volunteers boost support, visibility for Thai king

Reuters, BANGKOK

From a distance, the volunteers cleaning up a clogged Bangkok waterway could be mistaken for Scouts, but the group, wearing yellow foulards and blue hats, are part of a volunteer program started by Thai King Maha Vajiralongkorn, 66.

The “Volunteer Spirit” scheme, which officially began last year, has created a new army of civilians who have pledged allegiance to the king and are boosting the image of Vajiralongkorn ahead of his formal coronation, which is expected to take place at the end of the year, according to sources close to the palace.

No official date has yet been set for the coronation.

Vajiralongkorn’s father, Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej, was revered by Thais during his seven decades on the throne and the deep relationship between the monarchy and the military helped facilitate a smooth royal transition following his death in October 2016.

Since then, the new king has brought about a major shake-up of royal affairs and some observers have said he might be seeking to distance himself from the military, which has been in power in Thailand since a 2014 coup.

Last year, Vajiralongkorn demanded unprecedented changes to a constitutional draft endorsed by the military government. He has also taken back control of royal assets formally managed by the government.

David Streckfuss, a Thailand-based independent academic said he saw the volunteer program as an attempt by the king to create a separate power base.

“If the monarchy is ... to distinguish itself from the military and attempt to bring Thailand into a democratic constitutional monarchy, then we might look at this effort by the new monarch as creating an alternative power base,” Streckfuss told reporters.

The palace declined to comment.

However, Vajiralongkorn is thought to have a good working relationship with Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, who came to power following the 2014 coup.

Thamontip Puangkitja, a 50-year-old retiree turned volunteer, said the program benefits the royal household.

“It is good for society and the revered royal institution,” Thamontip said as she picked up rubbish in Bangkok.

“I joined the program because I wanted to do good for the king,” said another volunteer, Patcharaporn Husain, 61, a housewife.

More than 4 million volunteers from all walks of life have joined the scheme, according to officials in charge. They carry out a range of tasks from cleaning public spaces to helping police to direct traffic.

Their most high-profile moment came when the volunteers joined an international rescue effort to rescue 12 boys and their soccer coach from a flooded cave in July.

“We fed about 4,000 people every day at the cave,” a palace official who was involved with the rescue told reporters.

He declined to be named.

Volunteers have to register with the palace and go through an initiation process that involves lining up and bowing in front of the king’s portrait before being given their yellow and blue uniforms — colors associated with Bhumibol and Thai Queen Mother Sirikit, Vajiralongkorn’s mother.

Once they put on the uniforms, the volunteers do a military-style salute to the king’s portrait and, in a completely new tradition, they must line up and salute the king’s portrait every time before starting a community activity.

Some say the program reflects the mindset of Vajiralongkorn, who sees the court of former Thai king Vajiravudh, also known as Rama VI, as the ideal model of kingship.

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