BANGKOK: Protesters in Bangkok on Saturday (Sep 19) repeated demands for the Thai monarchy to stay above politics and under the constitution in the biggest demonstration yet since a military coup in 2014.
They gathered at Sanam Luang, a public square in front of the Royal Palace in Bangkok, to voice their opposition against the government of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha and call for reforms, including the monarchy.
“If we can’t change this, we’ll never have democracy,” said civil rights lawyer and activist Anon Nampha, who was recently released from jail after breaking his bail conditions.
He has been actively involved in recent student-led demonstrations and openly called for reforms of the monarchy in Thailand, where the lese majeste law imposes jail terms of three to 15 years.
In his speech on Saturday, Anon questioned if the annual budget allocations for the monarchy could be cut, and whether the king’s constitutional powers could be reduced.
“We want to see our country stay under the constitutional monarchy. We do not think otherwise,” he said.
Saturday marked the 14th anniversary of the previous military coup, which ousted the caretaker government of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra following months of political turmoil and street protests.
The Sep 19 rally is one of many recent demonstrations led by youths to call for various reforms in Thailand, including the removal of its lese majeste law.
It was organised by the United Front of Thammasat and Demonstration (UFTD) and began in the late morning on Saturday, when protesters gathered outside Thammasat University. This was despite the university’s announcement last week to prohibit the rally in its compound.
People gathered around in front of the university’s gate facing Sanam Luang, including student activists Panupong "Mike" Jadnok and Panusaya "Rung" Sithijirawattanakul. The crowds demanded that university staff unlock the gate and let them inside, which was what happened soon after.
One of the protesters 40-year-old Supatra Pranakhon told CNA she travelled by bus for eight hours from Loei in northeastern Thailand to show her support. She believes the youths are doing the right thing by “fighting for democracy” and calling for political reforms, saying the country is in “terrible” shape.
“Young people these days are expressive. They dare to think and take action. They’re better than those in the past, who didn’t dare,” said Supatra.
“Our prime minister is incompetent and lacks leadership. He already staged a coup and seized power. Now it’s time to return the power to the people. Let others run the country.”
The rally on Saturday is not Supatra's first. Six years ago, she took part in the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC)’s demonstration against the democratically elected government under then-prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra, which paved the way for the 2014 coup.
It was led by Prayut, who was the army chief then, and welcomed by several PDRC supporters.
Today, Supatra has joined a movement calling for the end of his rule.
“I don’t like this government. They’ve stayed in power for too long. Nothing has improved,” she said.
“You’ve already seized power. You should let go now. You shouldn’t even be prime minister. You should return the power to someone else, someone competent.”
In the evening, a stage was set up at Sanam Luang nearby before demonstrators relocated to the public square as the crowds grew.
The rally is scheduled to continue on Sunday, when protesters plan to install a brass plaque similar to the one made after the 1932 Siam Revolution, which transitioned Thailand from absolute monarchy to constitutional monarchy.
The original memorial brass plaque - previously located at the Royal Plaza where the People’s Party announced the revolution 88 years ago - mysteriously disappeared in April 2017 without explanation. It was replaced with another plaque, which is inscribed with a different set of words.
PROTESTERS PLACE PLAQUE IN GROUND, DELIVER LETTER FOR KING
On Sunday, protesters set up an awning in front of their main stage at Sanam Luang. The sound of drilling could be heard as they prepared the area for a symbolic ceremony.
The awning was later removed, revealing a small hole in the ground.
On the stage, the new brass plaque was unveiled. It reads: “Here on 20 September 2020 at dawn, the people proclaimed this country belongs to the people and not the monarchy as they have lied."
The plaque was then placed on the ground by youths before being cemented.
At about 8.30am local time, student activist Parit Chiwarak announced on stage they would deliver a letter for King Maha Vajiralongkorn to president of his Privy Council Gen Surayud Chulanont. The letter contained three demands and ten suggestions for reforms of the monarchy.
Protesters then moved onto the road but were blocked by security officers. But before long, student leader Panusaya Sithijirawattanakul managed to deliver the letter to a governmental officer.
By 9.40am, the protest ended peacefully and crowds began to disperse.