Pro-democracy Thais call for change on end of absolute monarchy anniversary

Pro-democracy activists project video footage of the declaration of the end of absolute monarchy at Democracy Monument in Bangkok, on June 24, 2020. PHOTO: AFP

BANGKOK - A pro-democracy group gathered at Democracy Monument in Bangkok before dawn on Wednesday (June 24) to read aloud the declaration made at the very same time by the revolutionaries who turned Thailand into a constitutional monarchy on June 24, 1932.

Many other groups in the capital and a dozen other provinces held similar gatherings throughout the day, broadcasting or reading the same declaration made by the People's Party, a group of civilian bureaucrats and military officers, 88 years ago. But it was more than just a commemoration of the end of absolute monarchy.

Unlike past anniversaries of the 1932 bloodless revolution, this year's commemoration was widespread, not contained among a few, and on occasion turned into peaceful anti-government protests calling for more democracy and power to the people.

"We held the event at Democracy Monument because it is one of a few remaining legacies of the People's Party. Many such legacies have been pulled down, but what will never disappear is the People's Party's declaration and their ideologies," said human rights lawyer Anon Nampa.

A number of sites and objects memorialising the People's Party have been removed or replaced over recent years. The most prominent - one that sparked calls for answers - was a brass plaque embedded in the tarmac in the Royal Plaza in Bangkok marking the regime change.

In April 2017, the plaque was found to be replaced by a new one bearing a royalist slogan. No explanation has been given by the authorities. For some time the site was barricaded after news of the replacement became known while public discussions were shut down.

Chanting "Prayut, get out" and "Prawit, get out" - referring to Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha and Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan - anti-government protesters took the opportunity to demand changes.

In particular, they called for amendments to the military-drafted constitution in use since 2016.

This has paved the way for extended military influence beyond the 2019 general election, through the junta-appointed Senate that voted in Mr Prayut, who led the 2014 coup, for a second term and possibly beyond.

Mr Prayut insisted on Wednesday that Thailand is a democracy, while the army hosted a ceremony honouring two generals who revolted unsuccessfully against the People's Party, the first event of its kind.

The pro-democracy group gathering in front of the parliament made the three-finger salute, a popular anti-government gesture in Thailand from The Hunger Games movies. Some also demanded June 24 be made national day again.

The day was made national day in 1939 before the government changed it in 1960 to December 5, the birthday of the late king Bhumibol Adulyadej.

Wednesday's gatherings were sparked by "the understanding among the people who fight for democracy that Thailand's political development is backsliding to the past", said Dr Prajak Kongkirati, a political science professor at Thammasat University.

"For democratic supporters and the young generation, the idea of the 1932 revolution that the nation should belong to the people not the tiny group of unaccountable elite is a very significant idea worth fighting for," he added.

Thailand has slipped into military dictatorship on multiple occasions since 1932, having endured 13 successful coups and many more attempts. Even after last year's election, critics say democracy has not been fully functioning.

The dissolution of anti-military Future Forward Party in February triggered an unprecedented wave of anti-government protests among university and high school students.

"Democracy is moving backwards since 1947. 1946-1947 was the period when Thailand had its greatest democracy because at that point the monarchy and the military were simultaneously weak, while civilian democracy was strong," said Dr Paul Chambers, a political scientist at Naresuan University and an expert on the Thai military.

"The difference between 1932 and today is that now many Thais at more of a mass level are clamouring for political space than ever before."

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