BANGKOK — From a distance, the volunteers cleaning up a clogged Bangkok waterway could be mistaken for Scouts, but the group, wearing yellow foulards and blue hats, are part of a volunteer program started by Thai King Maha Vajiralongkorn, 66.
The “Volunteer Spirit” scheme, which officially began in 2017, has created a new army of civilians who have pledged allegiance to the king and are boosting the image of Vajiralongkorn ahead of his formal coronation at year-end.
Vajiralongkorn’s father, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, was revered by Thais during his seven decades on the throne and the deep relationship between the monarchy and the military helped facilitate a smooth royal transition following his death in October 2016.
Since then, the new king has brought about a major shake-up of royal affairs, and some observers have said he may be seeking to distance himself from the military, which has been in power in Thailand since a 2014 coup.
Last year, Vajiralongkorn demanded unprecedented changes to a constitutional draft endorsed by the military government. He has also taken back control of royal assets formally managed by the government.
David Streckfuss, a Thailand-based independent scholar said he saw the volunteer program as an attempt by the king to create a separate power base.
“If the monarchy is … to distinguish itself from the military and attempt to bring Thailand into a democratic constitutional monarchy, then we might look at this effort by the new monarch as creating an alternative power base,” Streckfuss told Reuters.
The palace declined comment.
Vajiralongkorn however is thought to have a good working relationship with Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, who came to power following the 2014 coup.
Thamontip Puangkitja, a 50-year-old retiree turned volunteer, said the volunteer program benefits the royal household.
“It is good for society and the revered royal institution,” Thamontip said as she picked up rubbish in Bangkok.
“I joined the program because I wanted to do good for the king,” said another volunteer, Patcharaporn Husain, 61, a housewife.
More than 4 million volunteers from all walks of life have joined the scheme, according to officials in charge. They carry out a range of tasks from cleaning public spaces to helping police to direct traffic.
Their most high-profile moment came when the volunteers joined an international rescue effort to rescue 12 boys and their soccer coach from a flooded cave last month.
“We fed about four thousand people every day at the cave,” a palace official who was involved with the rescue told Reuters.
He declined to be named.
Volunteers have to register with the palace and go through an initiation process that involves lining up and bowing in front of the king’s portrait before being given their yellow and blue uniforms – colors associated with former King Bhumibol and Queen Mother Sirikit, Vajiralongkorn’s mother.
Once they put on their new uniforms, the volunteers do a military-style salute to the king’s portrait and, in a completely new tradition, they must line up and salute the king’s portrait every time before starting a community activity.
Some say the program reflects the mindset of King Vajiralongkorn who sees the Victorian-era court of King Vajiravudh, also known as Rama VI, as the ideal model of kingship.
“The king wants the volunteers to be a kind of ‘Sue Pa’,” Sulak Sivaraksa, a renowned scholar who has sometimes been a critic of the monarchy, told Reuters, referring to the Wild Tiger Corps – a paramilitary force founded in 1911 by Vajiravudh that was inspired by the British Volunteer Force.
He “wants the monarchy to serve the people, to protect the people, to do well for the people,” said Sulak, 86.
The volunteer force raised by Vajiralongkorn is not armed.
Bhumibol was patron to hundreds of foundations spread across Thailand, but no such volunteer program existed during his reign.
The volunteers are able to do things that the government might otherwise not be able to, because of their royal backing, said Sulak.
“If the government asked them they wouldn’t do it,” said Sulak.
“The volunteer program is one of the great successes of the new king.”