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Turbulent Thailand

Thailand protesters call for probe into king's wealth and spending

More than 10,000 gather outside Siam Commercial Bank

Thousands of protesters gather outside the massive headquarters of Siam Commercial Bank in northern Bangkok on Nov. 25. In 2017, King Maha Vajiralongkorn transferred nearly one-quarter of its shares into his own name from the Crown Property Bureau. (Photo by Masayuki Yuda)

BANGKOK -- More than 10,000 protesters dispersed peacefully on Wednesday night after a protest outside the headquarters of Siam Commercial Bank filled with fiery speeches of political defiance and sweeter singalongs.

King Maha Vajiralongkorn is the largest individual shareholder in the bank, and protesters have previously urged people to close their accounts to indicate dissent.

One of the protest leaders, Panusaya "Ruang" Sithijirawattanakul, said the next demonstration would be on Friday at 4 p.m. but she did not disclose the venue. Ruang has been listed among the BBC 100 Women 2020 along with Hong Kong protest leader Agnes Chow.

Another leader, Parit "Penguin" Chiwarak, demanded an investigation into the king's wealth and spending habits.

Penguin asked the crowd to join in a final song Wednesday in case he is arrested and unable to protest on Friday. He described his leadership position as "the greatest privilege of my life," but said he was always replaceable. "Everybody is a leader, and they can't catch everybody," he said.

In a Facebook post the previous day, Penguin said police had ordered him to report to its technology crime suppression division at the Government Complex on Dec. 1.

Similar summonses have been issued to at least 12 activists, according to local reports. They include Ruang, Arnon Nampa, a human rights lawyer, and student leaders such as Tattep "Ford" Ruangprapaikitseree, Patsaravalee "Mind" Tanakitvibulpon, and Panupong "Mike Rayong" Jadnok.

The summonses came ahead of the rally outside the SCB headquarters in northern Bangkok that began at 3 p.m. and aggravated the normally bad traffic in the area. The large complex was closed for the day, but branches opened as normal. SCB shares closed 2.28% higher than the previous session at the Stock Exchange of Thailand.

"Although the old are dying, the new cannot be born -- this is a crisis of hegemony," said protest organizer Free Youth in a statement before the rally. "To tackle it, the ruling class must surrender to enlightened people who wish to break the chains and make another world possible."

"Down with the ruling class, long live the people," it signed off.

Protest organizers originally planned to gather at Democracy Monument and then march toward the Crown Property Bureau in the administrative heart of the capital to demand an investigation into the king's wealth and spending.

The police had heavily barricaded the CPB area with shipping containers, concrete barricades and a cocoon of razor wire. Protesters had been warned not to come within 150 meters of the compound, which is located in the administrative heart of the capital.

Organizers said the overnight change of venue was intended "to reduce tension, avoid a clash, and not to fall into a trap set by a tyrant."

Authorities were seen installing extra surveillance cameras around SCB early on Wednesday morning.

The shipping containers blocking the area around the Crown Property Bureau included ones with Safmarine, P&O Nedlloyd, Hamburg Sud and Maersk Sealand liveries. The official account for A.P. Moller-Maersk, a global leader in container shipping, tweeted its concern that Maersk branded containers were being used as "barricades in recent unrest events" in Thailand. "These containers are not owned by Maersk, but sold in the open market to a third party," it said.

Three hours later, Maersk clarified the unexpected ding in its image: "We acknowledge that our used container resale processes have not been fully met, and we will consider additional measures for future sales."

Thai authorities have had problems before misusing shipping containers. In March 2009, when they were deployed to block off Government House from Red Shirt protesters, the Red Shirts brought in heavy cranes and dumped the steel containers in a nearby canal.

King Vajiralongkorn is the largest shareholder in SCB, Thailand's second largest bank by assets, holding 23.4% of the shares in his own name.

CPB assets were estimated to exceed $60 billion in 2016 when the king acceded, and include prime real estate and substantial blue chip equity, notably in Siam Cement Group and SCB. The Crown Property Bureau, which dates from the 1930s, was established to manage of the assets of the throne, but in 2017 these became the personal property of the king.

"I want to ask you directly from the protest stage, if we allow state properties to be transferred to the ownership of King Vajiralongkorn, what will be left for the future king?" Arnon tweeted on Tuesday. He called for laws to curb the monarch's spending, and a review of the ownership of all properties in question by a transparent body.

"It is clear that the protesters are now targeting the king, which is a severe move against the monarch that will force the government to take more serious action against them," Jade Donavanik, chairman of the law faculty at the College of Asian Scholars, told Nikkei Asia earlier this week.

"We will implement all sections of law against everybody equally," Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha told reporters on Friday, Nov. 20, two days after an anti-government rally ended outside the Royal Thai Police headquarters.

Young protesters sprayed and daubed paint all over the railings, main entrance and surveillance systems. There was anti-monarchy chanting, and considerable graffiti against the king that had to be cleaned up or concealed.

When reporters asked Prayuth specifically if the law of lese-majeste will be dusted off, he said: "I said all sections of laws will be implemented."

Article 112 of the criminal code is intended to protect the king, the queen, the heir-apparent or the regent from defamation, insult or threat. Convicted violators face sentences of up to 15 years. The Thai law is by far the most draconian still in force, and has long been condemned by jurists and human rights groups.

Following a big upturn in prosecutions for alleged lese-majeste after a coup in 2014, resort to the law was suspended in 2017 on the king's instructions. It had become apparent that its indiscrimant use was harming the image of the monarchy and dragging the crown further into politics. Laws against sedition and computer crimes were used instead to counter critics.

In June, Prayuth announced that the king had instructed him not to use the law against protesters.

After youth-led protests got underway in July, arrested protest leaders were mostly charged with sedition before sooner or later being granted bail. These cases are gradually coming to court.

There has never previously been so much open criticism of Thailand's monarchy -- the nation's "highest institution." Technically, the lese-majeste law has been breached on countless occasions, particularly in the wake of a protest on Aug. 10 organized by the United Front of Thammasat and Demonstration, but nobody has so far been charged.

"The lese-majeste law is there, and it remains to be seen how seriously the government will apply it," said Yuthaporn Issarachai, a political scientist at Sukhothai Thammatirat University.

Protesters have consistently called for the resignation of Prayuth and his government, amendments to the constitution with public consultation, and reform of the monarchy under the constitution -- but not its abolition.

Government House has attempted to convey the message that the protesters have been heard, but there is little to show for this.

Prayuth has indicated on a number of occasions that he has no plan to resign, and can claim that parliament has already sat to consider various paths to constitutional reform.

Thailand has had 20 constitutions since 1932, but only the brief interim military charters following coups arrived overnight. The latest took three years and two drafts.

A joint session of parliaments dismissed five out of seven constitutional reform proposals, thereby ensuring that reforms to the first two chapters covering the monarchy are not on the table. Many senators abstained rather than acknowledge that there may be issues relating to the monarchy that need to be addressed.

The most radical proposal was from iLaw, an extra-parliamentary legal pressure group that had gathered over 70,000 signatures. iLaw's proposal was among the five rejected on Nov. 17 when thousands of anti-government protesters gathered in front of a heavily defended parliament. Water cannons and tear gas were used by riot police. There was also a clash between protesters and ultraroyalists dressed in yellow shirts. Police fired water cannons to break up the melee.

In all, 55 protesters were injured, and six were found to have .38 caliber gunshot wounds. A suspected gunman from the ultraroyalist group was subsequently arrested. Some protesters suffered serious residual skin reactions to the irritants police added to the water.

Attapol Buapat, who led a protest in Ratchaburi province on Monday, promised a fiery response to any lese-majeste charges. An Article 112 complaint against him has been lodged there by Pareena Kraikupt, a local member of parliament with Palang Pracharat, the main party in the ruling coalition.

"We will gather wherever an arrest warrant is issued," Attapol said.

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