Thai pro-democracy groups vow to intensify protests as leaders charged

Panusaya Sithijirawattanakul (centre) walks towards Khlong Luang police station to hear charges for illegal gathering, in Pathum Thani.
Panusaya Sithijirawattanakul (centre) walks towards Khlong Luang police station to hear charges for illegal gathering, in Pathum Thani.PHOTO: AFP

BANGKOK (BLOOMBERG) - Thai pro-democracy groups have vowed to intensify their protests calling for monarchy reform and a new Constitution, a day after a Bangkok court sent four of their leaders into pre-trial detention on royal defamation charges.

Thousands of demonstrators gathered on Wednesday (Feb 10) in central Bangkok for a second day to demand the immediate release of leaders, and to protest the government's "inaction" towards their demands.

One of the key protest leaders, Panusaya Sithijirawattanakul, said earlier that the refusal of bail is a sign that the authorities are adopting a confrontational stance.

A court on Tuesday denied bail to lawyer Arnon Nampa, student leader Parit Chiwarak and two others accused of breaking Thailand's lese majeste law. The detained leaders are among activists who have spearheaded a movement that has broken long-held taboos about publicly discussing and questioning the country's monarchy, which sits at the apex of power in Thailand.

More frequent protests will pile pressure on Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha's government, which is facing a no-confidence vote next week and battling a slump in the trade- and tourism-reliant economy.

While political analysts expect the authorities to charge more activists in the coming days under the lese majeste act to weaken the protest movement,  MrPrayut has said the government is merely enforcing existing laws.

Thailand's lese majeste law is one of the harshest in the world, mandating as many as 15 years in prison for each instance of defaming, insulting or threatening the king, queen, heir apparent or regent.

Since late November, the authorities have charged at least 58 activists who have led demonstrations and called for a review of monarchy's powers.

'No Compromise'

Mr Prayut said on Wednesday that Thai people should help one another and learn from protests in the past, when asked about Wednsday's gathering.

The movement that started in mid-2020 is demanding constitutional reforms and the resignation of Mr Prayut, who ruled the country as junta leader for five years before becoming premier after 2019 elections.

A court on Feb 9 denied bail to student leader Parit Chiwarak (left) and lawyer Arnon Nampa. PHOTO: REUTERS

While street rallies had become less frequent since mid-December due to Thailand's fresh wave of Covid-19 infections, public demonstrations will now resume, Panusaya said.

"The court's refusal to allow our friends to get bail is a sign that there's no compromise," she said. "So we now have to come out and show our strength and tell them that we won't stop with our demands."

The Human Rights Watch expressed concern about the increasing use of lese majeste laws against pro-democracy activists and said the detained leaders may spend years in jail without trial.

"Holding people in pre-trial detention for peaceful expression portends a return to the dark days when people simply charged with this crime end up spending years in jail while their trials drag on interminably," Mr Brad Adams, Human Rights Watch's Asia director said in a statement on Wednesday.

"The Thai government should address the demands of critics and protesters instead of putting them in jail for long periods before they are tried on flimsy charges," he added.