Confrontation avoided on day of protest in Bangkok

Thai protesters flash three-finger salutes and hold placards during an anti-government protest in Bangkok, on Oct 14, 2020. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

BANGKOK - The drama began in the wee hours of Wednesday (Oct 14) , when leaders of Thailand's anti-government protests sent out urgent messages on Facebook and Twitter, calling for demonstrators to gather in Bangkok at 8am instead of 2pm.

They said they had heard that certain groups would try to occupy the space around Bangkok's Democracy Monument, so decided to move their plans forward to thwart any sabotage attempt.

This raised fears of a clash with royalist groups which had made plans to mass at key sections near the monument on Wednesday morning wearing the colour yellow in a show of support for King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

The monarch, who keeps a home in Germany, was scheduled to pass by that evening on his way to a royal temple.

One of the protest leaders, Mr Arnon Nampa, promised that demonstrators would not block the motorcade but would flash the three-finger anti-dictatorship salute as it passed.

Mr Arnon was the first protest leader who raised the topic of monarchy reform on stage in August - an act which earned him both threats as well as plaudits in a country where insulting the king is punishable by up to 15 years in jail. Since then, protestors have repeatedly called for the monarch's power and expenditure to be trimmed.

The royalists on Wednesday were joined by men with uniform crew cuts, dressed in yellow polo shirts, who filed into the space around the Democracy Monument and sat on the pavements before 9am.

The towering edifice, which sits in the middle of a traffic circle along the grand Ratchadamnoen Avenue, was built to commemorate the 1932 revolution that toppled the absolute monarchy. In recent times, city officials have barricaded it and filled the interior with potted plants.

Small confrontations between royalist and anti-government protestors fizzled out just as quickly as they started.

As the afternoon sun took hold, protestors began removing the plants from the monument in a symbolic act of reclaiming the space. High-school students in school uniforms and grey-haired ladies formed a human chain, passing the pots of greenery from one person to the next until the sidewalks were awash with plants.

Then protest leaders announced that they would begin their march to the Government House, to press the ruling powers to amend the Constitution and hold fresh elections.

After they left, city cleaners swooped in to freshen up the streets in preparation for the royal motorcade. People donning yellow sat on the sidewalks in yellow straw mats, waiting to pay respects to the monarch.

The marching protestors took a detour, avoiding a major road on which the royal motorcade was expected to pass.

But a commotion was reported near Government House as police pushed back protestors to let a car carrying Queen Suthida though. Protesters flashed the three-finger salute as it passed.

In the end though, the royal motorcade managed to pass largely unhindered through Ratchadamnoen Avenue on Wednesday evening.

As the royalists dispersed and the road reopened to traffic, the Democracy Monument remained shorn of plants.

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