A Thai royalist in a divided kingdom From Reuters

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© Reuters. Royalist Thitiwat Tanagaroon shows his tattoos during an interview with Reuters at his home in Nonthaburi

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By Matthew Tostevin and Jiraporn Kuhakan

BANGKOK (Reuters) – The words the King of Thailand spoke to Thitiwat Tanagaroon were tattooed on his arm: “very brave, very good, thank you”.

The 50-year-old restaurant manager never thought he would be praised by King Maha Vajiralongkorn when he brandished a royal portrait in an anti-government protest last month. He also did not expect online attacks and requested that he be fired from his job.

“There are many people who still love the monarchy and revere the monarchy, but they are not coming out,” he told Reuters.

“Whoever comes out is harassed.”

Just a few months ago it was taboo to criticize Thailand’s monarchy, and few dared to enact bold, strict royal libel laws.

Now defending the monarchy can also provoke criticism – a monumental change in a kingdom where the institution has been promoted for decades and must be revered under the constitution.

The palace did not respond to a request for comment on attitudes changed since the protests began in July.

“The new generation and youth are not into it,” said 23-year-old protest leader Tattep Ruangprapaikitseree of the respect that generations of Thais have shown to the monarchy.

“You see that they are human, the king is human, not a god.”

Like many Thai people his age, Thitiwat grew up watching the nightly royal news on television. He saw people kneeling as royal cars drove on roads lined with royal portraits. The monarchy is the only thing he always trusts, he said.

“It’s the same love I have for my father and mother,” he said. “For me the monarchy is God.”

A decade ago he joined street protests – from royalist “yellow shirts” – to overthrow an elected populist government.

DRAMATIC TURN

He was among the thousands who prayed and slept outside the hospital when King Bhumibol Adulyadej fell ill in 2016. And when King Bhumibol died after seven decades of reign, Thitiwat – like the rest of Thailand – was dressed in black for a year.

But Thailand has changed dramatically since the protests that began in July against Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha – a former army chief.

Anti-establishment demonstrations have evolved into calls to contain the powers of the monarchy, accuse critics of promoting military rule, assuming excessive authority, making lavish spending and allowing crackdown on critics.

The protesters have stressed that they are trying to reform the monarchy, not abolish it, despite the fact that royalists distrust them.

For Thitiwat all accusations against the king are lies and the monarchy is above politics.

His anger boiled over as the chants in the street changed from vulgar explosives thrown at Prayuth to curses against the king and he resented the now widespread criticism of kings on social media.

“It makes me want to throw up,” said Thitiwat.

The protests have drawn tens of thousands of people – including to the suburb of Pinklao, where Thitiwat works: a modest tangle of congested streets, flyovers and shopping centers.

“Half the people support the demonstrators and the other half are against,” said Gade, 50, who supports the demonstrations and has a clothes stand 100 meters from Thitiwat’s restaurant.

There was no confrontation the day Thitiwat stood nearby with his picture of the late king, the royalist said. The demonstrators have just raised their symbol of defiance, the three-finger salute “Hunger Games”.

But online, he said, was “gross” and a lot worse. The restaurant’s rating has been knocked from 4.8 stars to 1 and it has been bombarded with calls to fire it, the owner said.

“I was very scared,” said 33-year-old owner Bo, who refused to give her full name or identify her restaurant.

On Facebook (NASDAQ :), a user named Mind Pain wrote, “I’m disappointed, time to find a new place to eat.” However, the owner said the royalists were now showing solidarity and revenues had increased.

While royalists condemn such attacks, protesters complain of worse.

“Think about what the pro-democracy side has experienced in recent years. Persecuted, persecuted, harassed, in danger of suffocation,” said Tattep. “There has to be dialogue, not harassment.”

SENTIMENT SHIFT

It is difficult to measure the displacement in the country of 70 million. The largest protests were larger than the royalist statements of support, but a recent poll found that 60% of people thought the protesters shouldn’t attack the monarchy – without explaining why.

Change is obvious. Not everyone stands for the royal anthem in the cinemas. When a woman hit a teenager who did not stand for the national anthem at a train station, she was publicly condemned.

Thitiwat’s rise as a hero to monarchists came when the king praised him outside the palace on the evening of October 23rd, when he knelt with thousands of other well-wishers.

Thitiwat said the encounter was not staged as critics have suggested. He burst into tears of emotion and was unable to sleep later. The video he posted from the meeting went viral.

But many were not sympathetic. They accused the king of fueling the split by praising Thitiwat and ignoring calls for protest. A week later, the king said the protesters were “loved anyway” but that there was no royal response to their demands.

Some radical monarchists say they are ready for violence, but Thitiwat saw no place for it.

“The children are like family,” he said. “I’ll try to be harder and endure the hatred.”

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