Anti-government protesters in Thailand declared “victory” on Sunday, after handing a list of demands for monarchy reform to Bangkok authorities — an explosive and unprecedented move in a country that reveres the king.
Thousands gathered in the nation’s capital for this weekend’s rallies, which began on Saturday and were part of a protest movement that has been gaining momentum since July.
Student leader and activist Panasaya “Rung” Sitthijirawattanakul, 21, took to a public stage late Saturday to directly address Thailand’s King Vajiralongkorn — an act that, under strict national laws, could be punishable by 15 years in jail if her comments are considered defamatory to the monarchy.
Panasaya listed to the crowd the ten demands of the United Front of Thammasat and Demonstration, a student union group of which she is the spokesperson. They include revoking laws against defaming the monarchy, a new constitution, abolishing royal offices, ousting the military junta and disbanding the king’s royal guards.
On Sunday, with thousands still out, a group from the rally announced it intended to deliver the ten demands to the Privy Council, the king’s advisers.
However, Panasaya and other marchers were stopped by police as they attempted to approach the council. In an exchange broadcast live on television, Panasaya instead agreed to hand the demands to police and declared a victory for protesters.
Speaking to the crowds before they dispersed, protest leader Parit “Penguin” Chiwarak said: “Our victory is that we handed our letter directly to the king, so we can show that everyone is equal. Everyone has the same blood color — it’s red. Thank you everyone for celebrating our victory. We told people to raise their hand.”
Parit said the movement would continue to pursue its goals peacefully.
“We achieved all of this by non-violent methods and we will uphold the principle of non-violence in our movement,” Parit said Sunday.
On Sunday protesters also installed a “people’s plaque” near the Thai Royal Palace, commemorating their movement as the “vanguard of democracy.”
“Here, the people declare that this place belongs to the people, not the King,” the plaque reads. Protest leaders said it was a replacement for another plaque that had marked the end of monarchic rule in 1932, but went missing in 2017.
Thai Prime Minister Gen. Prayut Chan-O-Cha on Sunday “expressed his gratitude to officers and all the people who have jointly cooperated to end the situation peacefully,” according to a statement from his official spokesman Anucha Burapachaisri.
“Both the protesters and officers have avoided confrontation and instigation which could lead to an unnecessarily tense situation,” the statement read.
“The government has the intention to allow people to lawfully express their rights under the constitution.”
Asked about the submission of a reform letter to the king, Burapachaisri said: “I am aware of their demands about monarchy reform from listening to their speeches on the stage but I don’t have them in detail yet. I would need time to gather info before we have further comments on this.”
Thailand Isn’t Immune To Anti-Government Protests Escalating
Ahead of this weekend, official figures had tried to dissuade protesters from turning out — and dispel fears that the rallies could turn violent.
On Thursday, the Prime Minister warned protesters they could cause economic destruction if coronavirus spreads at gatherings, though he didn’t name protest groups individually or specifically address the planned weekend rallies.
And in a briefing on Saturday morning, the commander of the Thai Royal Police told people not to believe what he called rumors that police will “suppress the mobs,” and urged officers not to react if “provoked.”
Later that afternoon, protest leaders pushed open the gates of Thammasat University, a heart of student activism in Thailand. They gathered on the campus and at Sanam Luang, a public square near the king’s official residence at the Grand Palace.
This comes after two months of almost daily demonstrations, including one in Bangkok with an estimated 10,000 people on August 16. The movement began with students in towns across the country — but has since attracted a large cross-section of society.
Protesters and their supporters are calling for a range of institutional changes; for instance, Pita Limjaroenrat of the opposition Move Forward Party said his group will propose a council meeting to “re-write the constitution peacefully.”
The best solution, Limjaroenrat says, is to elect a “group of persons” to re-write it. He told the media that if change does not occur in the country “the people will keep coming out on the street.”
But among these grievances, reforming the monarchy is becoming the central demand. At a previous protest on August 10, Panusaya read out a series of demands for palace reform, which include ensuring a genuine constitutional monarchy that places the monarch under the constitution.
That is a radical idea in Thailand, where the powerful royal institution is regarded by many with deity-like reverence — but dissatisfaction, especially among Thai youth, has been simmering for years.