Thai protesters call for reform of monarchy and general strike

Thousands march to demand curbs on the power and budget of the royal family

Thousands of Thai protesters marched near the official residence of the king on Sunday to hand-deliver a letter demanding curbs on the power and budget of the royal family, in one of the boldest challenges to the institution in living memory.

Thailand’s monarchy has long been considered beyond direct public criticism, but over recent months a student-led pro-democracy movement has broken deeply ingrained taboos to call for reforms.

On Sunday morning, demonstrators laid a plaque in cement at Sanam Luang, an area near to the Grand Palace, which read: “This country belongs to the people and is not the property of the monarch as they have deceived us.”

Later, protesters marched to deliver their demands for reform to the king’s privy council, but were stopped by police in front of the supreme court. One of the student leaders, Panusaya Sithijirawattanakul, was allowed to walk past a line of officers and hand an envelope containing their demands to a police commissioner.

“The biggest victory of all is that ordinary people like us can submit a letter to the monarchy,” Parit Chiwarak, a protest leader, told crowds, before announcing further action to step up pressure on the establishment.

He called for a general strike on 14 October, the anniversary of the 1973 student uprising, and for people to withdraw their money from Siam Commercial Bank (SCB), of which King Maha Vajiralongkorn is the largest shareholder. “Get all your money out and burn your bank book,” he said.

Crowds were also urged to continue to wear white ribbons, a symbol of the pro-democracy movement, and to show a three-finger salute, an act of defiance borrowed from the Hunger Games. The gesture has been displayed by protesters, especially school students, during the national anthem, which is played twice a day in public spaces such as train stations.

“I want to see people do it at … every train station, every shop, even police stations or civil service offices,” Parit said. “Our bravery will spread to those who agree with us.”

Anti-government protesters hold up a three-finger salute during a rally at Sanam Luang on Sunday.
Anti-government protesters hold up a three-finger salute during a rally at Sanam Luang on Sunday. Photograph: Lauren DeCicca/Getty Images

Thailand’s royal family is shielded from criticism by a strict lèse majesté law that carries a sentence of up to 15 years, though the prime minister, Prayuth Chan-ocha, has said the king requested that nobody be prosecuted under the law for now.

Dozens of protesters, including Parit and Panusaya, have been charged with other offences, such as sedition, which carries a seven-year sentence.

Prayuth, who first came to power in the 2014 military coup, has said he will consider some protester demands, including calls for reform to the constitution, which was written under army rule. On Sunday, a government spokesperson said the prime minister thanked both police and protesters for the peaceful nature of the demonstration, according to the public broadcasting service Thai PBS.

Students are also calling for the dissolution of parliament and Prayuth’s resignation. The prime minister has previously told protesters to leave the monarchy out of their discussions.

Despite this, throughout the weekend, protest leaders again addressed the role and wealth of the royal family. “While you live abroad, back at home the elderly have their allowances delayed [by the government],” Anon Nampa, a human rights lawyer, said. Officials have previously said delays to older people’s payments were caused by administrative problems, not a lack of funds.

King Maha Vajiralongkorn, who assumed the throne following the death of his father, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, in 2016, has been criticised for spending most of his time in Germany. Since assuming the throne he has strengthened his authority, bringing the wealth of the crown and key army units under his direct control.

“I’m one of the people, who you might see as mere dust under your feet,” said Panusaya, who addressed the king directly in a speech on Saturday night. “I’d like to tell you that dust like us have our rights and voices too.”

Protesters camped out on Saturday night at Sanam Luang, which translates roughly as “royal ground”, but which organisers said they would instead call “people’s ground”. The plaque they placed there is a reference to another brass plate that previously featured at Bangkok’s Royal Plaza, where it commemorated the end of absolute monarchy in 1932. In 2017, the plate disappeared.

Over the weekend, students were joined by older demonstrators, including “redshirt” protesters – supporters of the former populist prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a military coup in 2006.

“What the students are saying today, if it was 10 years ago they would all be put in jail. Today they don’t dare do it,” said a man attending Saturday’s gathering, who asked not to be named. “It’s not about abolishing the monarchy, it’s about having monarchy under the constitution and stopping people from using it for their political benefit.”

Pro-democracy protesters install a plaque declaring ‘This country belongs to the people’ at Sanam Luang in Bangkok
Pro-democracy protesters install a plaque declaring ‘This country belongs to the people’ at Sanam Luang in Bangkok. Photograph: Sakchai Lalit/AP

Dr Paul Chambers, a special adviser on international affairs at Naresuan University, in northern Thailand, said the wave of protests was unprecedented in the country, and that the rallies were “shifting the rules regarding what can be discussed in public”.

“The demonstrations could easily lead to the fall of the Prayuth government, though they could also produce a brutally repressive reaction from the army. The overall strategy of the authorities is to wait out the demonstrators,” he said, adding that authorities would continue to pursue legal charges against protest leaders, and to pressure universities and the parents of student activists.


Rebecca Ratcliffe in Bangkok

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Thai police fire water cannon at Bangkok monarchy protesters
Pro-democracy demonstrators assemble for second day in defiance of security crackdown

Rebecca Ratcliffe South-east Asia correspondent

16, Oct, 2020 @4:11 PM

Article image
Thai king flies to Germany as monarchy reform calls persist
Analysts say Maha Vajiralongkorn’s trip abroad could be sign he considers situation is under control

Philip Oltermann in Berlin

12, Nov, 2021 @1:55 PM

Thai PM flees angry protesters

New leader cornered for second time in fortnight as anti-government violence paralyses Bangkok

Ian MacKinnon in Bangkok

22, Oct, 2008 @11:01 PM

Article image
The king and I: the student risking jail by challenging Thailand's monarchy
Panusaya Sithijirawattanakul believes she has a duty to speak out – and her country is ready

Rebecca Ratcliffe and Thanit Nilayodhin

13, Oct, 2020 @4:06 PM

Article image
Two dead as Thai troops battle protesters

Prime minister Somchai Wongsawat evacuated by helicopter as demonstrators demand his resignation

Ian MacKinnon, south-east Asia correspondent

07, Oct, 2008 @11:01 PM

Thai protesters blockade roads in Bangkok for 'shutdown'

Protesters led by former deputy premier Suthep Thaugsuban set up blockades and encampments at major road junctions

Kate Hodal in Bangkok and agencies

13, Jan, 2014 @11:50 AM

Article image
Thai protesters rule out talks after deadly clashes
Anti-government demonstrators demand immediate dissolution of parliament after 20 killed in Bangkok violence

Jo Adetunji and agencies

11, Apr, 2010 @10:24 AM

Article image
Thai protesters using children as shields, army claims
Hundreds of children remain behind redshirt barricades as troops prepare to remove all demonstrators by force

Ben Doherty in Bangkok

17, May, 2010 @7:02 PM

Article image
Redshirts accept 'reconciliation roadmap' to Thai general election
After 54 days of bloody protests, Thailand's redshirts have agreed to a government peace offer of a general election at the end of 2010

Ben Doherty in Bangkok

04, May, 2010 @5:14 PM

Article image
Thai protesters march to royal guard barracks in Bangkok
Pro-democracy rallies have raised pressure on Thailand’s royalty and army in past week

Rebecca Ratcliffe in Bangkok

29, Nov, 2020 @4:46 PM