More than 10,000 people rallied in the Thai capital of Bangkok on Sunday, one of the biggest gatherings yet among anti-government protesters demanding an end to the military-led administration and calling for the monarchy’s powers to be reined in.
Demonstrators in masks and carrying placards assembled at the Democracy Monument, which commemorates the 1932 revolution that ended absolute monarchy. They held up three fingers to reflect their demands for a dissolution of parliament, the end of threats to civil liberties and for a new constitution.
“We’re not just a movement on social media anymore. We’re out here calling for real change and they have to listen,” said Chanita Chananusorrasit, a 24-year-old law graduate who attended the protest. “We want a charter that belongs to all people, not just the military.”
The protests are breaking deeply entrenched taboos in Thailand, where openly criticizing the monarch can lead to long jail sentences and worse. Besides taking down the government, some protesters have also called for revoking strict lese-majeste laws, separating the monarch’s properties from the Crown Property Bureau, banning the sovereign from expressing political opinions and prohibiting the monarchy from endorsing any coups.
Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-Ocha, a former army chief who staged a coup in 2014, said last week the majority of Thais disagreed with the protests as calls grow from the royal establishment to stop them. The protest’s official hashtag, loosely translated as #SettingADeadlineToEndDictatorship, was the top-trending one on Thai Twitter with more than three million tweets.
The rally was organized by Free People, an umbrella group that includes several student organizations as well as gay, lesbian and transgender youths. Some student leaders have been arrested, one as recently as Friday, before being released on bail. No arrests were reported on Sunday.
“If we call for changes both inside and outside the parliament, the government should listen more,” said Taopiphop Limjittrakorn, a lawmaker from the opposition Move Forward party, who attended the protest to observe and talk to people.
Thai student activist leader Parit Chiwarak, who was arrested last week and later released on bail, said before the rally that he would continue to protest against the government.
“We’re not only fighting against the military dictatorship, but also fighting to solve issues with the monarchy,” Parit said on his Facebook page after being released on Saturday on condition he doesn’t repeat his alleged offenses. Charges against him include sedition.
Dozens of pro-government and royalist supporters gathered on Sunday morning and also attended the afternoon demonstration, though they were corralled to avoid clashes with protesters. They waved the Thai flag, held up portraits of the king, and wore yellow shirts, a color associated with the Thai monarch. Police were stationed around the main protest area, screening people at several entrances.
On Thursday, Prime Minister Prayuth questioned the motives of the group and said the country is facing more important problems related to a hobbled economy following the pandemic. His party, Palang Pracharath, condemned some of the protest leaders who spoke out against the monarchy and said people in the country “won’t let anybody destroy an institution that’s loved and respected.”
The government should look to engage in talks with students on how the monarchy can evolve instead of just declaring any discussions on the matter illegal, said Titipol Phakdeewanich, dean of the political science faculty at Ubon Ratchathani University in northeastern Thailand.
“The government can’t turn a blind eye on the movement,” he said. “This is nothing like the past.”
Since taking over, King Maha Vajiralongkorn has displayed his authority as head of state more overtly.
The king rebuked exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra after an election in which his allies won the most seats, took command of some army units and approved legal changes that gave him ownership of Crown Property Bureau assets. Those include stakes in Siam Commercial Bank Pcl and Siam Cement Pcl worth about $6.7 billion combined, according to the firms’ websites and Bloomberg calculations.
Panusaya Sithijirawattanakul, another student leader, said Friday she would continue to speak out against the monarchy even though she expected to be arrested in what may be a violent crackdown.
“Eventually it will happen, yes, but if I can, I will try to not lose everyone in violent protests,” she said. “I don’t want violence so I will try to focus on peace.”