Thailand’s crown prince made a rare appearance at a public event Sunday to honor his mother, the queen, at a time of anxiety about royal succession in the kingdom.
Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn broke with precedent and led cyclists on a 43-kilometer ride, known as “Bike for Mom” to honor his mother, Queen Sirikit.
About 40,000 registered riders in Bangkok followed the crown prince and other dignitaries, including prime minister Prayuth Chan-ocha and some members of his cabinet.
Thousands of well-wishers lined the course, many waiting hours in the sweltering heat for a glimpse of the prince who, wearing a safety helmet and sunglasses, looked very much like many of the other similarly-attired riders.
“I want to wish for the queen and the prince long lives, as well as all of the royal family,” said a 67 year-old spectator who identified himself only as Apichart, a street vendor. “The king, especially, has done good things for all of us and the country so I am so grateful and I respect them all.”
Another spectator, housewife Doenchaai Photippayawong, paid respects to the queen and the crown prince, declaring “they are loved by the Thai people.”
Tens of thousands of riders joined similar events in other cities, with Thai media putting the total number of participants on two wheels at between 300,000 and 400,000.
Two riders outside of Bangkok fainted and died, according to local media reports.
Some see the high-profile event as an attempt to show a more relaxed side of the heir apparent as the country’s influential monarchy approaches a crossroad.
The crown prince is the only son of King Bhumibol Adulyadej. He is first in line to succeed his highly revered father — the world’s longest reigning monarch and the only king most Thais alive have ever known.
Bhumibol ascended the throne in 1946 after his brother, King Ananda Mahidol was mysteriously found in bed dead of a gunshot wound.
In the decades since, the king’s statements during times of political crisis, his charitable acts and regular public appearances, scrupulously chronicled in the domestic media, made him a powerful figure whom many Thais see as above the country’s near-routine political turmoil.
Unlike the bicycling royals of Scandinavia or the more traditional monarchs of European history, the Thai kings are perceived as having a near divine position in a nation where Buddhism permeates ritual.
Both Bhumibol and Sirikit — he is 87 and she marked her 83rd birthday last Wednesday — have been in poor health and absent from public life for years.
The crown prince, 63 and a more remote figure, has not attained the exalted level of adoration given to his parents.
More frequently seen is his younger sister, Princess Sirindhorn, 60, popular for her charitable work.
Discussion of the eventual succession is taboo and any comments perceived as insulting the monarchy are a serious criminal offense.
The U.N. human rights office wants Thailand to amend its lese majeste law, more frequently enforced since last year’s military coup led by the then army chief and now prime minister Prayuth.
“We are also alarmed at the spike in harsh prison terms delivered in such cases by the military courts, which themselves fail to meet international human rights standards, including the right to a fair trial,” Ravina Shamdasani, a spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights told reporters last Tuesday in Geneva.
For thousands of Thais, at least for one Sunday, all such concerns were put aside as they followed the heir apparent on a certain course. Their hopes are the monarchy’s future will also enjoy an equally smooth ride.