Thai protesters set to defy authorities, rally at Government House

Agence France-Presse

Posted at Sep 20 2020 10:24 AM

Protesters during a rally at Sanam Luang in front of the Grand Palace in Bangkok, Thailand on Saturday, Sept. 19, 2020. The weekend rally heightened the focus on a once taboo issue: a rich and powerful monarchy that has rarely been challenged or criticized. Adam Dean, The New York Times

BANGKOK - Thai student activists are set to defy authorities and march to the seat of government Sunday morning, after staging the biggest protest in years in which demonstrators demanded reforms to the unassailable monarchy. 

The kingdom has seen near-daily protests for the past two months led by student activists calling for the resignation of Premier Prayut Chan-O-Cha, a former army chief who masterminded the 2014 coup. 

Demonstrators spent Saturday rallying in Bangkok's historic Sanam Luang field located next to the Grand Palace, where organizers took a stronger line on monarchical reform, calling for the royal family to stay out of the kingdom's politics.

"The will of the people is stronger than the rain," protest organizer Parit Chiwarak, also known as Penguin, said Saturday night as demonstrators braved near-constant rainfall under a sea of umbrellas. 

The movement is pushing frank questioning of the royal family's role in the kingdom into the public, what was once a taboo topic due to Thailand's draconian royal defamation laws.

Authorities said Saturday's demonstration drew 18,000, while organizers claimed a far higher turnout. 

AFP reporters on the ground estimated a crowd size of 30,000 -- making it the largest gathering the kingdom has seen since the 2014 coup. 

Organizers expect about 10,000 protesters to march with them to the nearby Government House on Sunday morning -- a move authorities have warned against. 

Human rights lawyer Anon Numpa, who has emerged as one of the leading figures in the movement, also plans to place a replica of a small bronze plaque at Sanam Luang field at dawn. 

Commemorating the end of royal absolutism in 1932, the original plaque was embedded in the ground of Bangkok's Royal Plaza for decades before it mysteriously vanished in 2017 -- with no explanation ever given by authorities.

Activists say the missing plaque is emblematic of a wider whitewashing of Thai political history. 

"We will declare together that this country belongs to the people," Anon said in a fiery speech in the early hours of Sunday. 

REFORM FOR 'EVERY INSTITUTION'

The leaderless youth-organized movement, inspired by Hong Kong's pro-democracy protests, is calling for Prayut's government to be dissolved, a rewrite to a 2017 military-scripted constitution, and for authorities to stop "harassing" political opponents.

Some factions within the movement -- including the organizers of the weekend demonstrations -- have also called for frank discussion of the monarchy. 

Their demands include greater accounting of the palace's finances, the abolition of royal defamation laws and a call for the king to remain outside of politics. 

"We need to reform every institution in Thailand -- monarchy, army, education," said Warren, a 50-year-old Bangkok businessman who participated in Saturday's rally but declined to give his full name.

The ultra-wealthy King Maha Vajiralongkorn sits at the apex of Thai power, bolstered by a powerful military and conservative establishment. 

In the weeks since the pro-democracy movement has gathered pace, arch-royalist groups have sprung up, staging smaller counter-demonstrations demanding protesters "not to touch the monarchy".

Prayut has said Thailand would be "engulfed in flames" if the students push too hard, though he vowed "softer measures" against the weekend's protesters. 

Since 1932, the military has staged more than a dozen coups following bouts of violent protests -- which arch-royalist generals have claimed in the past was necessary to defend the king. 

The recent wave of pro-democracy demonstrations have so far been peaceful. 

But authorities have arrested more than two dozen activists so far, charging them with sedition before releasing them on bail. 

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