Thousands of cyclists honour Thai king
December 11, 2015 | 4:58 PM
by Reuters
People ride bicycles during a mass cycle event to honour King Bhumibol Adulyadej in Narathiwat, southern Thailand on December 11, 2015. Photo - AFP

Bangkok: Thousands of cyclists streamed through Bangkok on Friday to honour Thailand's revered king in an outpouring of loyalty.

"Bike For Dad" is part of weeks of celebrations marking the birthday of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the world's longest reigning monarch, who turned 88 on December 5.

Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, the king's only son and heir, led a throng of cyclists on a 29km (18 miles) route starting in Bangkok's old quarter.

Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha and several cabinet ministers joined the procession of yellow-shirted riders. Yellow is the colour that represents the king.

"Many people want to share this moment to send a sign to our king that we all love him very much," said Nusara Anuntavanichaya, 44, who sat with her six-year-old daughter on the route, along with thousands of yellow-clad spectators.

Many Thais see the king as a unifying figure in a country that has suffered bouts of violent upheaval over the past decade as rival power networks, one closely associated with the royalist military, vie to run the country.

The king is in frail health and has not been seen in public since September 1. He is in a Bangkok hospital, where he has spent much of the past six years, and where doctors in August treated him for what the Royal Household Bureau called "water on the brain", or hydrocephalus.

The cyclists passed the hospital on their route.

The king is a constitutional monarch, with no formal political powers, and long wielded immense influence.

The crown prince does not command the same devotion his father does, leading to apprehension about the succession. He smiled at cheering crowds as he cycled past on Friday.

The military, since seizing power in a May 2014 coup, has zealously pursued anyone perceived to have defamed the royals, including senior military and police officers, under lese majeste, or royal insult, laws.

Two suspects have died in military custody during a police investigation of corruption involving "Bike For Dad" and another cycling event aimed at celebrating the royals.

Police said last week they had launched an inquiry into US Ambassador to Thailand Glyn Davies after he criticised "lengthy and unprecedented" jail sentences for those found guilty of lese majeste.

Authorities said about 30,000 police and soldiers were on duty for the bike ride, which comes four months after a bomb at a city shrine killed 20 people.

Police said a people-smuggling gang angry about a crackdown was responsible. The blast came a day after a "Bike For Mom" cycling event in honour of Queen Sirikit.

Police said on Friday they had arrested a group of people who planned to "create a disturbance on an important day".

They did not elaborate but Prayuth said authorities had foiled a plot to assassinate senior government officials at the procession.

Meanwhile, Thai police on Friday said they were considering suing a former officer investigating human trafficking for defamation over comments he made implicating senior officials in the trade.

Police Major General Paween Pongsirin arrived in Melbourne a few days ago and told the Australian Broadcasting Corp (ABC) on Thursday that he feared for his life because influential figures in the Thai government, military and police implicated in the illicit trade want him dead.

"There are some bad police and bad military who do these kind of things," Paween told the broadcaster. "Unfortunately, those bad police and military are the ones that have power."

Royal Thai Police chief Jakthip Chaijinda told reporters that he did not know why Paween fled but said a legal team was checking whether his comments were defamatory.

"I don't know the reason why he had to go and speak about this issue but he should not talk about this because it could damage the country," said Jakthip.

Paween resigned from his post as deputy commissioner of Provincial Police Region 8 in November saying an order to transfer him to Thailand's south would expose him to revenge by members of trafficking syndicates still at large.

Suspects he was investigating for trafficking were influential in the region, he said, and could target him. His resignation raised serious questions over Thailand's commitment to end the human trafficking and protect its officers.

Thailand's crackdown on lucrative smuggling gangs followed the discovery in May of 36 bodies in shallow graves hidden deep in a mountain near the Thailand-Malaysia border, which sparked international outcry.

Thailand has brought a case against 88 suspected human traffickers but examination of some 500 witnesses in the case could take as long as two years.

Paween was listed as a key witness to testify against officials and other individuals facing criminal charges over their alleged involvement in trafficking.

Jakthip said there were no issues with the trafficking case and that Paween was the only police officer to raise allegations of intimidation.

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