BANGKOK -- King Maha Vajiralongkorn has been unusually visible in public during his longest stay in Thailand since his accession to the throne in 2016, despite major youth-led protests in recent weeks demanding reform of the monarchy.
The king who spends most of his time in Germany is now expected to stay in the kingdom until the end of December, sources say.
On Saturday evening, the king finished presiding over a two-day graduation ceremony at Thammasat University, one of the kingdom's most prestigious universities and epicenter of the pro-democracy movement.
The protest organizers announced that there would be an online protest at 5 p.m. instead of a physical rally on or near the main campus in Bangkok for safety reasons. They planned to use a QR code to enable access to a so-called "secret video" broadcast from Thammasat. Transmission was blocked however after police entered the group's operations room and seized equipment, according to local media.
Thammasat University has a storied history of political activism, and has also produced numerous public figures, including a former prime minister, Chuan Leekpai, who is today president of parliament.
A more recent student, Panusaya Sithijirawattanakul, commonly known as Rung, was instrumental in setting the tone of the protests when she read out a 10-point agenda for reform of the monarchy on Aug 10.
Rung was arrested on Oct. 16 after riot police cracked down on peaceful protesters, and released last night from the Central Women's Correctional Institution.
At the same time, two other key leaders were released from the nearby Bangkok Remand Prison: Parit Chiwarak ('Penguin') and Panupong Jadnok ('Mike Rayong'). All three had been detained for roughly two weeks, but were finally let go after the criminal court refused to issue a third temporary detention order.
An attempt was made by police officers out of uniform to immediately re-arrest all three on fresh charges, and they were forcibly removed to Prachachuen police station in northern Bangkok. Panupong was reportedly choked unconscious in the process, and Parit was injured by glass splinters.
The drama was witnessed by pro-democracy protesters and members of the press. All three are being treated at Praram 9 hospital, with Rung reported to be suffering from dehydration and lack of sleep.
The pro-democracy movement has all along demanded the resignation of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha and his cabinet, and constitutional changes drafted by representatives of the people. Prayuth has agreed to meet with stakeholders, but details remain uncertain.
Saturday's graduation ceremony started at 3:30 p.m. and went through uninterrupted despite the tense atmosphere surrounding what is normally an occasion for great celebration.
According to Thammasat, 9,625 graduates were eligible to receive the degree from the king, and 51% registered for the ceremony, which requires two days of rehearsal. Traditionally, each student appears before the king to receive their graduation certificate directly. This year, security checks had been stepped ahead of the "big surprise" at 5 p.m. that failed to materialize.
The boycott campaign evidently resulted in nearly half the eligible students not participating. On Friday, a few hundred students took turns receiving a degree certificate from a life-size cutout of Somsak Jeamteerasakul, a former Thammasat lecturer and key critic of the monarchy who lives in self-imposed exile in France.
The next public event on the king's schedule is changing the vestments on the Emerald Buddha at the Grand Palace on Sunday.
The king, with Queen Suthida at his side, mingled with ordinary royalists in Bangkok on Oct. 23 and on Tuesday during a visit to Ubon Ratchathani province. The encounters involved a degree of familiarity not previously seen.
"We expect to see an intensified struggle between protesters and monarchists on both offline and online platforms," Boonyakiat Karavekpan, a political scientist at Ramkamhaeng University, told Nikkei Asia. "Protesters have clearly expressed that their fight goes beyond the government, and is against the monarchy."
Additional reporting by Masayuki Yuda.