Thai pro-democracy protesters return to the streets calling for royal reforms

Anti-government protesters behind the barrier while facing riot-police officers during a rally calling to revoke the lese majeste law, near the Grand Palace in Bangkok on Feb 13, 2021. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

BANGKOK (AFP) - Thai pro-democracy protesters scaled a massive Bangkok monument on Saturday (Feb 13), draping it in a crimson cloth and calling for the kingdom to abolish its draconian royal defamation laws.

Momentum for the youth-led movement calling for an overhaul to Premier Prayut Chan-o-cha's government has slowed in recent months due to a fresh wave of coronavirus infections in Thailand.

But the recent detention of four prominent leaders has spurred protesters into action, bringing hundreds back to the Democracy Monument intersection in Bangkok's historic quarter under the close watch of scores of riot police.

The leaders were charged under the lese majeste law, which carries penalties of up to 15 years per charge if found guilty of insulting the monarchy.

"I want to stress the purpose of today's rally is to call for 112 to be abolished," said Panupong "Mike" Jadnok, referring to the law by its penal code section.

After rearranging flower pots around the monument to say "112", activists draped a massive red cloth over Democracy Monument in an act of defiance.

"If the police don't release our friends within seven days, we will stage a big protest here at the monument," shouted rally leader Attapon Buapat.

As night fell, they marched to the Royal Palace, but were stopped by barricades and barbed wire surrounding the area.

Scores of police in full riot gear faced off with the protesters, some of whom were wielding white shields, gas masks and helmets.

The pro-democracy movement, which kicked off last July, is calling for reforms to the unassailable monarchy, and the abolition of the royal defamation law is one of its key demands.

Their grievances with the monarchy has electrified Thai society, where frank discussion about the royals is taboo.

At its peak, the rallies drew tens of thousands, with demonstrators drawing inspiration from Hong Kong's pro-democracy movement.

In November, police deployed tear-gas and water cannons against protesters, using liquid laced with an irritant. Clashes left more than 40 people injured.

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