Protesters, royalists face off in Bangkok

Brief scuffles broken up by police before convoy bearing Thai King was due to pass

Thai human rights lawyer Anon Nampa (centre) and other activists flashing the three-finger anti-dictatorship salute from a truck during an anti-government protest in Bangkok yesterday. PHOTO: EPA-EFE
Thai human rights lawyer Anon Nampa (centre) and other activists flashing the three-finger anti-dictatorship salute from a truck during an anti-government protest in Bangkok yesterday. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

Anti-government protesters faced off against royalists in inner Bangkok yesterday, during one of King Maha Vajiralongkorn's sojourns in Thailand.

The day, however, ended largely peacefully as brief scuffles were swiftly broken up by the police before a convoy bearing the King was due to pass.

Protesters later marched over 1km from the Democracy Monument to the Government House, taking a detour to avoid a road used by the royal motorcade.

Some later congregated around a convoy carrying Queen Suthida, flashing a three-finger anti-dictatorship salute as it passed. It was one of the baldest challenges to the palace yet from a movement that is demanding the Constitution be amended, fresh elections be held and the monarchy be reformed.

Yesterday's protest was the latest among over 200 demonstrations across the country since January.

Protesters say the 2017 Constitution is designed to keep Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha in power.

The former coup leader now leads a coalition government that continues to keep several former junta leaders in key positions.

Protesters also want to trim King Vajiralongkorn's power back in line with his official status as a constitutional monarch.

Legislators were due to initiate the process of amending the Constitution late last month, but delayed it through a last-minute motion during a joint session of the Lower and Upper Houses.

The next Parliament sitting will take place on Nov 1.

Thousands turned up for yesterday's protest and occupied a street outside the Government House. But they appeared to be outnumbered by yellow-shirt royalists, who lined the streets near the Grand Palace.

One of them, 60-year-old Sirima Phakawan, dismissed the protesters' demands.

"The monarchy has nothing to do with the Constitution. Only politicians are affected by it," she said.

Just around the corner from the Government House, a 50-year-old protester who wished to be known as Noo told The Straits Times: "I came to support the young people. This is about their life, their future."

The protest leaders have rallied under several names over the past few months, lately settling on Khana Ratsadon, in a nod to the group of military officers and civilians who overthrew the absolute monarchy in 1932.

Since assuming the throne in 2016, the King has taken personal ownership of an estimated over US$40 billion (S$54.2 billion) worth of assets managed by the Crown Property Bureau, as well as command of two infantry regiments.

The monarch spends much of his time in Germany, raising questions about the legality of his instructions from abroad.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, answering a lawmaker's question last week, said King Vajiralongkorn should not be conducting politics from Germany.

On Tuesday, protesters gathering near Bangkok's Democracy Monument got into a scuffle with police deployed there ahead of the passing of a royal convoy. Police arrested 21 people.

On Twitter that night, one of the top trending hashtags was a phrase sharply critical of the King.

Asean's second-largest economy, weighed down by a slower than expected tourism recovery amid the coronavirus pandemic, is projected by the World Bank to contract by 8.3 per cent this year.

While the government has been trying to boost consumption through tourism subsidies, co-payment schemes and tax breaks, the hardship has stoked public resentment over royal expenditure, which takes up almost 9 billion baht (S$393 million) in this year's budget.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 15, 2020, with the headline 'Protesters, royalists face off in Bangkok'. Print Edition | Subscribe