Thai anti-government protesters and royalist supporters of King Maha Vajiralongkorn staged rival demonstrations on either side of Bangkok Street on Wednesday, with political tension growing after three months of demonstrations.
Several hundred protesters at the Democracy Monument reiterated their call for the departure of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-Ocha, a former junta leader, and a new constitution. They gave their trademark three-finger greetings.
A few dozen meters away, hundreds of royalists gathered with members of the security forces – all dressed in royal yellow color – hours before the royal motorcade was due to pass along the road.
Despite a brief fistfight, the two sides remained largely separate, but the standoff revived fears of trouble in a country that had suffered a decade of street violence between supporters and opponents of the establishment prior to the 2014 coup.
Royalist leader Buddha Issara said the protesters could demand democracy, but they must not, as some have done, call for reforms of the monarchy.
"They're not allowed to touch the institution," he told reporters. "We're not going to accept any booing or raising three or four fingers during the motorcade as well."
Protesters made a rare direct challenge to the King on Tuesday, chanting at his passing convoy after 21 activists were arrested during police scuffles. Police said the detainees would be charged with public order offenses on Wednesday.
In years, protests have become the biggest challenge to a ruling establishment dominated by the army and the palace.
"We're out here to fight with all the people as well as the monarchy," protest leader Anon Nampa told the protesters. "We're out here to call for a reform of the institution to make the country better."
Government spokesperson Anucha Burapachaisri said the police had been told to avoid unnecessary confrontation. Police said nearly 15,000 officers had been deployed to maintain order.
The Royal Palace did not respond to any requests for comments on the protests or the protesters' demands.
Pro-Royalist demonstrations were small, compared to the tens of thousands who joined the biggest anti-government demonstration in September, but Wednesday's gathering of royalists was much larger.
Bangkok City Trucks unloaded hundreds of royalists, many with the King's flags and pictures.
"The establishment in Thailand is playing a very dangerous game, mobilizing state security forces and ultra-royal groups to confront pro-democracy protesters," said Prajak Kongkirati, a law professor at Thammasat University.
Among the anti-government protesters' demands are that the King's constitutional powers be curbed and that his personal control of some army units and a palace worth tens of billions of dollars be transferred back to him.