Bangkok: Openly challenging the monarchy of Thai King Maha Vajiralongkorn, thousands of protesters marched in Bangkok on Sunday to present demands that include a call for reforms to curb his powers.
Protesters have grown ever bolder during two months of demonstrations against Thailand's palace and military-dominated establishment, breaking a longstanding taboo on criticising the monarchy – which is illegal under lese majeste laws.
Anti-government protestors hold up a three finger salute during a rally at Sanam Luang on Sunday. Credit:Getty Images
The Royal Palace was not immediately available for comment. The king, who spends much of his time in Europe, is not in Thailand now.
The marchers were blocked by hundreds of unarmed police manning crowd control barriers.
Protest leaders declared victory after handing police a letter detailing their demands. Phakphong Phongphetra, head of the Metropolitan Police Bureau, said on a video broadcast from the scene that the letter would be handed to police headquarters to decide how to proceed.
A pro-democracy supporter fixes a plaque which declares “This country belongs to the people” during a protest in Bangkok on Sunday.Credit:AP
"Our greatest victory in the two days is showing that ordinary people like us can send a letter to royals," Parit "Penguin" Chiwarak, told the crowd before it dispersed.
At the biggest demonstration in years, tens of thousands of protesters on Saturday cheered calls for reform of the monarchy as well as for the removal of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, a former junta leader, and a new constitution and elections.
Shortly after sunrise on Sunday, protesters cemented a plaque near the Grand Palace in Bangkok in the area known as Sanam Luang, or Royal Field.
It reads, "At this place the people have expressed their will: that this country belongs to the people and is not the property of the monarch as they have deceived us."
Government spokesman Anucha Burapachaisri said police would not use violence against protesters and it was up to the police to determine and prosecute any illegal speech.
Bangkok authorities would need to determine whether the plaque is illegal and if it is it would need to be removed, Bangkok's deputy police chief Piya Tawichai told reporters.
Far from all Thais support the new plaque, which resembles one that had commemorated the end of absolute monarchy in 1932 and which was removed from outside a royal palace in 2017, after Vajiralongkorn took the throne.
Prominent right-wing politician Warong Dechgitvigrom said the actions of the protesters were inappropriate and that the king was above politics.
"It didn’t achieve anything," he said. "These actions are symbolically against the king, but the king is not an opponent."
Thai authorities have said criticising the monarchy is unacceptable in a country where the king is constitutionally "enthroned in a position of revered worship".
Protests that began on university campuses have drawn increasing numbers of older people. That includes red shirt followers of ousted populist prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra who had clashed for years with pro-establishment yellow shirts before Prayuth seized power in 2014.
"The new generation is achieving what their parents and grandparents didn't dare. I'm very proud of that," said Somporn Outsa, 50, a red shirt veteran. "We still respect the monarchy, but it should be under the constitution."
Protesters say the constitution gives the king too much power and that it was engineered to allow Prayuth to keep power after elections last year. He says that vote was fair.
The next protest is scheduled for Thursday. Protest leaders called on Thais to take October 14 off work to show their support for change.
“Radical change is hard in Thailand, but the movement has at least kept the momentum going," said Titipol Phakdeewanich, dean of political science at Ubon Ratchathani University.
Protests were held in major cities around the world, including London, Tokyo, New York and outside the hotel in Germany where the Thai king has taken up residence.
In Sydney, protesters gathered at Town Hall with placards reading "the king must be under the law" and "tell them not to stage a coup". Speeches ranged from abuses in the education system, a denunciation of dictatorship, to calls for the Australian government to put pressure on Thailand over human rights abuses.
Under COVID-19 restrictions, organisers were limited to 20 demonstrators at a time but were pleased with the support they saw.
Exiled academic Pavin Chachavalpongpun, whose Royalist Marketplace Facebook community boasts 1.4 million members and shares information about the monarchy, sent a message to the Australian protesters from Japan.
Pavin told the Herald and The Age on Sunday that the protesters were brave and consistently raising the bar for discussion of the monarchy, but it was too soon to see what lasting changes would result from the movement.
“What the king is good at is basically ignoring, pretending nothing ever happened,” Pavin said.
“So as much as I appreciate them and commend them for their courage, this is only halfway. When we see that the reform has materialised, then maybe we can congratulate them.”
Pavin said his platform has shown talking about the monarchy “can be normal” in a country where it was often kept private, and it had helped set a new standard for discussing an institution protected by draconian laws.
“I wished I was part of these people and a bit younger,” he said. “When I started there were so many obstacles, to the point that I can’t go home. That is one of the main consequences. If I was able to go home and was a bit younger, I wish I had the same courage.”
Pavin hoped the number of protests would not only provide Thais overseas with a sense of political belonging, but also prompt governments to re-evaluate their dealings with Thailand.
“The noise coming from overseas will be a good reason for governments, especially Western governments, to think carefully about their policy towards the current regime and also the king.”
Reuters, with Michael Ruffles
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