“People's plaque”, demand for reforms: Thai demonstrators challenge the monarchy

Bangkok | Installation of a “People's plaque” to say that the country does not belong to the king, calls for in-depth reforms of the royalty: thousands of demonstrators gathered near the former royal palace in Bangkok defied the monarchy on Sunday, a subject hitherto taboo.

The demonstration began on Saturday and brought together tens of thousands of people in the evening.

It is the largest rally since the 2014 coup that brought current Prime Minister Prayut Chan-O-Cha, who has since been legitimized by controversial elections, to power.

At the heart of the demands: the rewriting of a more democratic Constitution, the dissolution of Parliament and the resignation of the head of government.

Some of the protesters have also dared to openly confront the monarchy for a few weeks, but the tone has hardened this weekend.

On Sunday morning, activists cemented a plaque in Sanam Luang, a royal square near the Grand Palace in the center of the capital, in front of several thousand opponents still present.

“At this place, the people expressed their will: that this country belongs to the people and is not the property of the monarch”, it is written.

“The nation does not belong to anyone, but to all of us”, added Parit Chiwarak, said “Penguin”, one of the figures of the protest. “Down with feudalism”, he added.

“Immediate challenge”

The gesture is very symbolic: a plaque, installed for years in central Bangkok to celebrate the end of absolute monarchy in 1932, was removed under mysterious conditions in 2017, shortly after Maha Vajiralongkorn's accession to the throne.

It is “an immediate challenge” to royalty, noted Paul Chambers, political scientist based at the University of Naresuan, Thailand. “The hardening of the protest (on the royal family, editor's note) could lead to state violence against the demonstrators”.

The opponents then went to present their grievances to the offices of the very influential Privy Council, which assists the sovereign in his functions.

“It's a first victory (…) the people have already woken up,” said Napassorn Saengduean, a 20-year-old student.

Asked, the Royal Palace was not immediately available for comment.

Openly confronting the monarchy is unprecedented in Thailand, where, despite successive overthrow of regimes (12 coups d'état since 1932), royalty, defended by the elites and the army, has so far remained untouchable.

The protesters' demands are daring: they demand the king's non-interference in political affairs, the repeal of the very severe lese majesty law and the return of Crown property to the bosom of the State, claims deemed unacceptable by the government.

“Our objective is not to destroy the monarchy, but to modernize it, to adapt it to our society”, underlines Panusaya Sithijirawattanakul, said Rung, another figure of the opposition movement.

The Thai sovereign, well beyond his status as constitutional monarch, has considerable influence which he exercises most often in the shadows.

A controversial king

Maha Vajiralongkorn, who ascended to the throne in 2016 upon the death of his father, the revered King Bhumibol, is a controversial figure.

In a few years, he strengthened the powers of an already all-powerful monarchy, notably by directly taking control of the royal fortune.

His very frequent stays in Germany, even in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, have also raised questions on social networks as the country's economy, very dependent on tourism, is in the midst of a recession and millions of jobs are threatened.

The protesters, who have marched in the streets almost daily since the summer, bring together young people, students and townspeople. But other activists, belonging to the “red shirts” movement, close to ex-Prime Minister in exile Thaksin Shinawatra, joined in their actions this weekend.

Several thousand police officers were deployed around the palace.

The police have “been instructed to be patient. Protesters can assemble, but peacefully and within the framework of the law, ”government spokesman Anucha Burapachaisri said on Saturday.

But, in the judicial field, since the start of the protest, more than twenty activists, including Penguin and Rung, have been charged with “sedition”, a crime punishable by seven years in prison.

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