Thai king hands out diplomas at protest movement stronghold

BANGKOK (AP) — Thailand’s king presided over a university graduation ceremony Friday at a stronghold of a protest movement seeking to reduce the monarchy’s powers, after activists issued a call for students to boycott the event.

There was no way to confirm how many heeded the call, though videos of the ceremony showed that many students did attend.

The king or another senior member of the royal family traditionally hands out diplomas at university graduations, as was the case at Bangkok’s Thammasat University, where many of the protesters are active.

The student-led movement wants Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha to step down, the constitution to be amended to make it more democratic, and reforms to make the monarchy’s activities more transparent and accountable. It has been holding almost daily rallies around the country, some attracting upwards of 10,000 people.

King Maha Vajiralongkorn arrived at Thammasat late Friday afternoon amid no visible protests. There were no immediate reports of any disruption to the ceremony, which takes several hours.

Posters and props supporting the protest movement were visible at rehearsals of the ceremony.

More then 9,000 students are to graduate at Thammasat on Friday and Saturday. Student activist groups had called for students to skip the formal ceremony, which involves each person walking up to the king, paying respects, and receiving the degree from his hands. All participants had to take tests for the coronavirus, and social distancing was observed.

Several students earlier Friday explained their plans.

“We talked about this issue among friends and I respect everyone’s decision,” said Khetsophon Sirisopa, 24, of the College of Interdisciplinary Studies. “In my case, my family would like me to attend the ceremony, so I want to do what they are comfortable with, otherwise I wouldn’t be attending because of the inconvenience and my busy schedule.”

A classmate, Thatsanee Wan, said she discussed the matter with about 10-15 friends, and a minority chose not to attend, while others generally bowed to their family’s wishes.

“For me, I chose not to attend,” she said. “I did attend the rehearsal and asked myself how I felt. And I felt that it wasn’t right.” She instead came to the campus to hang out with her friends ahead of the ceremony.

The two were part of a group of students who finished their studies two years ago but whose graduation ceremony was postponed twice, first because the king could not attend, and then earlier this year because of the coronavirus crisis.

The protest movement charges that King Vajiralongkorn wields an inordinate amount of power in what is nominally a democracy under a constitutional monarchy.

The monarchy has long been considered an untouchable institution, revered by a large part of the population and protected by a lese majeste law that mandates a three-to-15-year prison term for anyone found guilty of defaming the monarch and his immediate family.