BANGKOK: Thousands of protesters in Thailand's capital demonstrated against the government of former coup leader and Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha on Saturday (Sep 19), with many also demanding reforms to the powerful monarchy.
"Down with feudalism, long live the people," was one of the chants.
Protests have been building since mid-July to call for the removal of the government, a new constitution and elections. They have also broken a long-standing taboo by criticising the monarchy of King Maha Vajiralongkorn.
Police said at least 5,000 people had gathered at the campus of Thammasat University, long seen as a hotbed of opposition to the military and royalist establishment, and scene of a massacre of protesters in 1976.
A crowd of several hundred gathered before noon at the locked gates of the university, demanding to be let in. Protesters chanted "Down with dictatorship, long live democracy!" and "Prayut get out!"
"If you don't open, we will break in," protesters yelled, before forcing the gates open - despite student leaders calling for calm - allowing hundreds to flow into the campus.
Under light rain, protesters spilled onto Sanam Luang, a public space opposite the Grand Palace where state ceremonies are traditionally held.
“Today the people will demand back their power,” Arnon Nampa, a human rights lawyer who has emerged as a leading figure in the protest movement, said on Twitter.
Sep 19 is the anniversary of the coup against the populist then-prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra in 2006. Among the protesters were many of his red shirt followers, veterans of clashes a decade ago with pro-establishment yellow shirts.
“I’m here to fight for the future of my children and grandchildren. I hope that by the time I die, they will become free,” said 68-year-old Tasawan Suebthai, a redshirt with amulets round her neck to ward off bullets.
So far the protests have been peaceful. The biggest to date drew more than 10,000 people last month, but organisers expect more this time.
ESTABLISHMENT UNDER FIRE
Thai politics has for years been marked by challenges to the royalist and military establishment by politicians backed by poor urban and rural voters, and more recently by the student protesters.
The military, which proclaims itself the defender of the country's core institutions, in particular the monarchy, has stepped in to overthrow civilian governments numerous times, most recently in 2014, citing the need to maintain stability.
Prayuth has said the government would allow protests as a form of free speech but that demands for reform of the monarchy were not acceptable.
"We are fighting to put the monarchy in the right place, not to abolish it," one protest leader, Panupong "Mike" Jadnok, told the crowd.
A 20-year-old student, who gave her name only as Waan for fear of reprisals, said it was time to reform the monarchy. "It’s a problem that’s been swept under the rug for so long. This must end right here.”
King Maha Vajiralongkorn sits at the apex of Thai power, buttressed by the kingdom's military and billionaire clans, and commands a fortune estimated to be worth up to US$60 billion.
Protesters demand the scrapping of a lese majeste law against criticism of the monarchy. They also seek to reduce the king's constitutional powers and his control over the palace fortune and units of the army.
So far, authorities have arrested more than two dozen activists, charging them with sedition before releasing them on bail.
The weekend demonstrations will prove a test for the movement, analysts say, which has gained momentum online thanks to the students' savvy use of social media.
"A critical mass would send a clear message that the protesters are a force to be reckoned with," said Thitinan Pongsudhirak of Chulalongkorn University.
Prayut has warned Thailand could be "engulfed in flames" if the movement goes too far.
But he vowed authorities would use "soft measures" on the protesters "because they are children".
The top-trending hashtag on Thai Twitter on late Friday was "Sep 19, we take back the power of the people".
Around the world, Thais are expected to gather in solidarity, with weekend protests planned in a dozen countries, including Germany, Australia and the United States.
On Thursday, Prayuth warned the protesters against raising the risks of spreading the novel coronavirus and urged them to put the health crisis before politics.
Protesters jeered when a police officer told a group of them that they could only stay for an hour because of the risk of transmitting the virus. Police said they were deploying 10,000 officers on Saturday.