'Long live the King!' Thai monarch carried in grand coronation procession

Jonathan KLEIN
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Thailand’s King Maha Vajiralongkorn was carried through the streets of Bangkok in a royal procession

Flanked by royal guards marching to a steady drumbeat, Thailand's newly-crowned King Maha Vajiralongkorn was carried on a gilded palanquin through the streets of old Bangkok Sunday, in front of crowds who shouted "long live the king!"

The monarch, Rama X of the Chakri dynasty, wore a bejewelled robe and a dark broad-brimmed hat with white feathers, on the second of three days of coronation ceremonies.

The seven-kilometre procession brought the public into close proximity with the 66-year-old monarch for the first time, two years after he ascended the throne in an increasingly assertive reign.

"When we looked at our king, he looked very smart and very great," Bangkok resident Donnapha Kladbupha told AFP, noting that he smiled.

Fronted by riders on white horses, the slow-moving procession started around 5pm (1000 GMT) at the grand palace as trumpets blared, soldiers shouted commands and cannons fired a 21-gun salute.

As night fell the king stopped to pay homage at several Buddhist temples.

Thais wearing yellow shirts -- the royal colour -- and carrying umbrellas to protect against soaring daytime temperatures filled the streets, with many clutching portraits of Vajiralongkorn.

The coronation, which started Saturday, is the first since Vajiralongkorn's adored and revered father was crowned in 1950.

The highlight of Saturday's sombre ceremonies was the King's anointment with holy water, before he placed the 7.3 kilogram (16 lbs) golden tiered crown on his head.

The rituals were "unique and reflect the tradition and history of Thailand and the monarchy", student Thanawat Muangon told AFP.

Thailand's monarchy is one of the wealthiest in the world and is steeped in protocol centring on the king, who is viewed as a demigod.

Vajiralongkorn ascended the throne in 2016 after the death of his long-reigning father Bhumibol Adulyadej.

A keen pilot who spends much time abroad in Germany, Vajiralongkorn is not as well known to his subjects.

But any in-depth discussion or criticism of the royal family in Thailand is guarded by harsh lese-majeste rules that carry up to 15 years in prison. All media must self-censor.

Early Sunday, Vajiralongkorn bestowed royal titles on family members who crawled to his throne in a striking show of deference to the monarch. He was joined by the new queen of Thailand Suthida Vajiralongkorn na Ayudhya.

Queen Suthida was deputy commander of the king's royal guard before her marriage to Vajiralongkorn, which was announced days before the coronation.

During the procession she marched next to the palanquin in red and black uniform with a tall fur hat.

Authorities sprayed mists of water over the crowds of onlookers whose numbers were bolstered by droves of "Jit Arsa" -- or "Spirit Volunteers" -- intended to project a show of devotion and fealty to the monarchy.

But soaring temperatures threatened to thin out numbers.

The coronation included a network of the most powerful and influential in Thailand.

Junta chief Prayut Chan-O-Cha, who seized power in a 2014 coup, took part in many of the key rituals and marched in the procession.

- 'Focus on politics' -

The coronation, broadcast on live television and cropping up on social media accounts of some royal family members, provided a rare glimpse inside palace walls.

One of those who received royal titles Sunday was 14-year-old Prince Dipangkorn Rasmijoti -- the king's son from his third marriage -- who knelt and prostrated in front of his father as he was anointed with water.

Vajiralongkorn has six other children, including four sons from two previous wives.

The dazzling display of the monarchy's primacy in Thai life belies a simmering political crisis held over from elections in March.

The junta that seized power in 2014 and has vowed to defend the monarchy is aiming to cling to power through the ballot box.

Its proxy party has claimed the popular vote. But a coalition of anti-military parties says it has shored up a majority in the lower house.

Full results are not expected until May 9, a delay that has frustrated many Thais.

"When the event (coronation) is finished we will have to focus on politics," said Titipol Phakdeewanich, a lecturer at Ubon Ratchathani University.

Since ascending the throne the king has made several moves that experts say reinforce the apex role of the monarchy.

He brought assets of the Crown Property Bureau under his direct control and appointed an army chief from a faction close to the monarchy.

In February, he scuttled a prime ministerial bid made by his older sister Princess Ubolratana with an anti-junta party.

Though the royal family is nominally above politics, the king issued an election-eve message calling on Thais to vote for "good people" against those who create "chaos".