BANGKOK -- In a ceremony laden with historic symbolism, Thai student leaders laid a plaque early this morning outside the Grand Palace in Bangkok and delivered a list of demands to the nearby Privy Council Chambers.
A plaque commemorating the overthrow of absolute monarchy in Siam, as Thailand was known 1932, was removed from Royal Plaza in 2017, and replaced with a royalist version. No official investigation was conducted into who was behind the act of political vandalism, which was one of a number of incidents.
The letter was delivered to a senior police officer by Panusaya Sithijirawattanakul, one of the most prominent student leaders to emerge during mounting protests in recent weeks.
The officer promised to convey the letter to the Privy Council, an unelected body dominated by retired military officers that provide counsel to the king.
Addressed directly to King Maha Vajiralongkorn, and signed by the student-led United Front of Thammasat and Demonstration (UFTD), the short letter repeated earlier demands for the resignation of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha and his government; redrafting of the constitution by an elected body, including the sections relating to the monarchy; and reform of the monarchy according to a 10-point UFTD outline made public in August. The letter made clear that it was advocating reform not the abolition of the monarchy, and was co-signed by "Thai people who refuse to be just dust.
"We have won this mission," said Parit Chiwarat, a leading activist commonly known as Penguin."Finally, commoners like us can send a letter to the king."
"Next time when you hear the national anthem, raise your three fingers," Parit told the crowd, referring to distinctive salutes and regalia mostly younger people have recently adopted as peaceful rebukes to the old royalist order.
"When you hear the king's anthem, you don't have to stand up," said Parit. "Please tie a white ribbon in front of your house to let them know that you salute democracy."
Parit told the crowd that there would be more protests, with the next scheduled for Sept. 24 outside parliament. He also called for a national strike on Oct. 14.
"Submit your vacation plan to your bosses in advance," he said. "We will stop working on Oct. 14 to paralyze Thailand. Then [the prime minister] will know the truth -- that we are the people who move the country's economy forward"
"Today I declare a war on dictatorship and bureaucracy," said Parit, exhorting them to close Siam Commercial Bank (SCB) accounts. King Maha Vajiralongkorn is the largest private shareholder in the bank.
"Let's ban SCB nationwide," said Parit. "We don't know if this will be our last fight or not -- what we know is that it is a fight we will win."
Undaunted by sporadic 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, but organizers and the press were in no doubt the figure was much higher.
"About 100,000 attended, "Panusaya told reporters. "The turnout is proof of people's support for our demands," she said.
Protesters in recent weeks have openly called for a free debate on a bold slate of pro-democracy issues -- including for the first time reform of the formerly sacrosanct monarchy.
The organizers ignored a police order yesterday afternoon to disperse, and a smaller hardcore slept out 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 scheduled, but organizers late on Saturday night said there were new plans without giving details.
Police meanwhile erected a razor wire barricade across Phan Fah bridge, a choke point between Sanam Luang and Government House that was the scene of violent clashes during political protests in May 1992.
All the protests in 2020 have so far peaceful and without serious incident.
This weekend's protest was organized by the United Front of Thammasat and Demonstration, or UFTD, an activist group at Thammasat University. It began there early on 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.
Among other demands, the UFTD has tabled 10 reforms of the monarchy. Panusaya read the proposed changes 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 yesterday. "I also want the government to resign -- it is incapable of running the country."
Panithan said he used to see things differently and had joined 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.
Political awareness has unquestionably been raised by the recent protests. Hundreds of academics have offered support and welcomed more debate, and celebrities made appearances yesterday. 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, the king 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 Royal Gazette, the official journal in which laws and promotions are announced, 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.
Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha 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.