BANGKOK -- Despite light rain, Bangkok on Saturday night saw by far its largest demonstration since a coup in 2014 installed a military government and put a lid on free speech. Police claimed that only about 18,000 people turned up, while organizers said the figure was well above what authorities told media.
"About 100,000 attended," Panusaya Sithijirawattanakul, a key student leader, told reporters. "The turnout is proof of people's support for our demands," she said.
The turnout was expected to take the temperature of political activism, and provide an indication of the depth of support for political reform. By most accounts, the rally exceeded another of about 20,000 on Aug. 16 at Democracy Monument close to the administrative heart of Bangkok, stepping up critical pressure on the military-backed government of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha.
Protesters in recent weeks have openly called for a free debate on bold pro-democracy reforms -- including for the first time the role of the formerly sacrosanct monarchy.
The protest started early afternoon ahead of schedule with two trucks parked on Thammasat University's soccer pitch serving as a temporary stage for a succession of speakers.
As with the Aug. 16 demonstration, older people also participated. Thanyathorn Pipitthanakajornchai, 55, told the Nikkei Asian Review that it was her first time at a protest. She said she was not against the monarchy but fed up with the present government. The prime minister keeps blaming everyone else," she said. "The economy is awful, but it is not just because of COVID-19."
At around 3:45 p.m., people led by Panupong Jadnok started moving away from the university soccer field to Sanam Luang outside the university's main gate. Police from nearby Chanasongkram police station arrived and ordered the crowd to disperse within an hour since the gathering was illegal under section 10 of the 2015 public assembly act and had not been notified to the authorities in advance. The police took no further steps at that time, but could charge organizers later.
Political use of Sanam Luang -- which has the dazzlingly illuminated Grand Palace at its southern end -- is normally not allowed, but local media had reported that it would be permitted on this occasion providing protesters did not come within 150 meters of royal property.
The organizers said they would stay overnight on the 12 hectare expanse that is used for major royal cremations and other ceremonies. A March to Government House on Sunday morning was also originally planned, but organizers said this had been changed without giving any details.
The United Front of Thammasat and Demonstration, or UFTD, an activist group at Thammasat University, scheduled the protest for Saturday afternoon despite officially being denied access to Thammasat University's historic Tha Phra Chan campus located between Sanam Luang and the Chao Phraya river.
At a press conference ten days ago, the organizers said a turnout of 50,000 to 100,000 was expected. The government had predicted a much smaller turnout, with security forces preparing for 20,000 protesters.
Among other demands, the UFTD has tabled 10 reforms of the monarchy. Panusaya read the proposed reforms out during a rally on Aug. 10 at another Thammasat University campus at Rangsit in northern Bangkok.
These included revocation of the law of lese-majeste, a reduction in public spending on the royal family, and a clearer distinction between royal and public assets.
The brazen demands broke a longstanding taboo on public criticism of the monarchy and stunned many, including some pro-democracy advocates.
"I agree with the 10-point demand for the monarchy to be under the constitution," Panithan Chanviboon, a 33-year-old company employee from Bangkok told the Nikkei Asian Review. "I also want the government to resign -- it is incapable of running the country."
Panithan said he used to see things differently and had come to the rally to make amends. "I want to redeem myself for being one of those people who called for coups to get rid of corrupt politicians," he said. "This is my way of repaying back to the country."
The Aug. 16 protest was organized by Free People, an activist group. Its organizers focused on three demands: dissolution of both chambers of parliament; rewriting contentious parts of the constitution; and an end to official harassment that inhibits people from exercising their fundamental rights.
Criticism of the monarchy was less strident at that event, during which Parit Chiwarat, a leading activist commonly known as Penguin, was released from police custody. On Saturday, he gave reporters a glimpse into his revolutionary thinking: "I learned you need 3% of the entire population to make a political change," he said. "Our goal is to attract 2 million people who can act together."
Political awareness has unquestionably been raised by the protests. Hundreds of academics have offered support and welcomed more debate. Secondary school students, many of whom will vote in the next general election due in 2023, have taken to wearing white ribbons and giving three-fingered salutes as expressions of silent rebuke to the government.
Access to Royalist Marketplace, a private Facebook group that openly discusses the role of the monarchy, was restricted on Aug. 24 following a legal submission by the Ministry of Digital Economy and Society. The group had already garnered over a million subscribers. A replacement Facebook group, Royalist Marketplace Talaat Luang, was immediately set up and has already attracted over 1.38 million members.
Although he resides mainly in Germany, King Maha Vajiralongkorn has been very much in the public eye recently, both at home and abroad. On Sept. 2, he reinstated Sineenat "Koi" Wongvajirapakdi as his royal noble consort after abruptly stripping her of the position in October 2019. She was the first to be elevated to the position in about a century when the king turned 67 in July 2019. A few months earlier, the king married for the fourth time, and Queen Suthida Bajrasudhabimalakshana remains his main consort.
According to the government's public journal Royal Gazette, the new army chief in October will be Gen. Narongphan Jitkaewthae, one of the king's favorites. His trusted predecessor, Gen. Apirat Kongsompong will become a lord chamberlain in the royal household after his retirement and is expected to wield considerable influence on the king's behalf.
Prayuth has attempted to dampen public enthusiasm for this weekend's rally by playing up the COVID-19 threat. "When you gather in crowds, you are creating an enormous risk of new transmissions, and with that you also create enormous risks to the livelihoods of tens of millions of fellow Thais," the former army chief who staged the 2014 coup said in a televised speech on Thursday. "Any major flare-up of infections will lead to terrible consequences and even worse economic destruction the likes of which we have never seen."
But many of the youngsters see the government as the bigger problem. "The economy will thrive if we can truly establish the foundation of democracy," Somsom, a 20-year-old Thammasat student told Nikkei. She was sitting under an umbrella with two friends who asked not to be identified, but said they had come to demand constitutional reform and freedom of speech.
Sanam Luang has many links to history. It used to be known as the Pramane Ground, and the title is restored for major royal cremations, including most recently that of King Bhumibol Adulyadej in October 2017 before a massive crowd. In ancient times, it was also used for public executions. From 1958 to 1983, it was home to the Weekend Market prior to its relocation to Chatuchak in northern Bangkok.
Sanam Luang, Thammasat University and Rajadamnoern Avenue, where Democracy Monument is located, were the settings for large demonstrations in 1973, 1976 and 1992, all of which led to major bloodshed at the hands of the military and other actors. Some of the most egregious violence occurred on Oct. 6 1976 when paramilitary Border Patrol Police and rightist ultra-monarchist groups massacred at least 49 students at Thammasat University, desecrating some of the corpses. The massacre left a permanent stain on Thai political life.