'Thailand doesn't need you': ultra-royalists push back against protesters
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Bangkok (AFP) –
Pictures of coffins and guns, and threats of death and violence: protests targeting Thailand's government and monarchy have hardened feelings amongst ultra-royalists, who are pushing back with aggressive abuse online.
The messages, some of which have got thousands of likes, are a danger sign for some, who point to the violent confrontations that have rocked Thailand in the past.
The threatening rhetoric follows months of student-led rallies that have drawn tens of thousands of people, calling for democratic reform and changes to the monarchy -- previously a taboo subject.
"People who insult the monarchy deserve to die!" wrote one Facebook user, hurling insults at prominent activist Anon Numpa -- a key figure pushing for royal reform.
"Thailand doesn't need people like you!"
Some memes circulating on social media threaten violence -- from a rifle-wielding man claiming the monarchy must be "defended at all costs" to a picture of a coffin photoshopped next to an activist.
Former MP Warong Dechgitvigrom, who founded pro-monarchy group Thai Pakdee (Loyal Thais), insists his compatriots are peaceful.
"We have no intention of using violence," the 59-year-old retired gynaecologist tells AFP.
The monarchy is necessary for stability, he insists, slamming Thailand's "brainwashed" youth.
"They don't want to reform royalty, they want to destroy it," Warong says.
"Without a monarchy, there would be a civil war."
- 'Very brave. So good' -
King Maha Vajiralongkorn sits at the apex of Thai power, flanked by the military and the country's billionaire business elite.
His influence -- and that of his late father Bhumibol Adulyadej, who reigned for 70 years -- permeates every aspect of Thai society.
The royal family is protected by one of the world's harshest royal defamation laws: any perceived criticism can land a person in jail for up to 15 years per charge.
But the student demands for reform have shattered those norms, with some demonstrators carrying "Republic of Thailand" signs at rallies.
Many protesters even failed to kneel earlier this month when a royal motorcade passed -- as dictated by centuries-old tradition -- and instead brandished a defiant three-finger salute.
While he has not publicly commented on the protest movement, the king has made recent public appearances among supporters -- a rare charm offensive for the monarch, who spends long stints away in Europe.
On Friday after an official ceremony, the king and his wife, Queen Suthida, broke with royal protocol to praise a supporter who held up a portrait of the king's late parents at a pro-democracy rally.
"Very brave. So good. Thank you," the king told the man, according to video footage posted on Facebook.
That quote was trending as a hashtag on Twitter over the weekend, along with #fightonmajesty.
- 'We love the king' -
Some ultra-royalists have called for further action against the growing pro-democracy movement.
Describing protesters as "garbage who need to be disposed of", a former military general has launched a Facebook group targeting those who have called for reform.
"I am willing to go to jail for my actions because I need to protect the monarchy at any cost," Rienthong Nanna writes on his page, in a message that drew 13,000 likes and was shared 850 times.
Such online aggression could easily spill over into real life, worries Patrick Jory, an academic with Australia's University of Queensland who has studied previous democratic movements in Thailand.
"Whenever the monarchy has felt threatened, (the state) has always responded with violence," he says, noting patterns of turmoil in the 1970s, 1990s and 2010.
Thailand's powerful military and billionaire clans have every incentive to ensure the status quo goes unchanged, he adds.
"All of the interests that are guaranteed by the monarchy, and actually their own personal status in Thai society", would be under threat if there is real royal reform, he tells AFP.
But painting all royalists as wealthy or part of an elite establishment is unfair, said royalist Sirilak Kasemsawat, a tour guide from Ubon Ratchathani province.
"I'm an ordinary person," she told AFP as she waited to pay her respects to the royal motorcade earlier this month.
"We want to show that we love the king."
© 2020 AFP