Thai anti-government protesters face off against royalists in Bangkok

Protesters have also sought to curb the powers of King Maha Vajiralongkorn.
Protesters have also sought to curb the powers of King Maha Vajiralongkorn. PHOTO: REUTERS

BANGKOK - Anti-government protester faced off with royalists on Wednesday (Oct 14) in inner Bangkok, during one of King Maha Vajiralongkorn’s sojourns in Thailand.

Wednesday’s demonstration was the latest among over 200 demonstrations that have broken out across the country since January.

Protest leaders are demanding that fresh elections be called after the Constitution is amended.

The 2017 Charter allows for a 250-seat Senate appointed by the previous junta administration, among other elements that critics say are 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.

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 sitting of the Lower and Upper House. The next parliament sitting will take place on Nov 1.

On Wednesday, protesters also repeated their controversial demand to keep King Maha Vajiralongkorn’s power in line with his official status as a constitutional monarch.

“We don’t want to overthrow the monarchy,” a 16-year-old protester who wanted to be known as Bonus, told The Straits Times. “We want to see equality for all people.”

But royalists also turned out in force.

Large groups of people dressed in yellow, many of them men with uniformly shaven heads, arrived early in the day and sat on the pavements, waiting for the motorcade the King who was due to pass by in the evening on the way to a religious ceremony at a royal temple.

“All Thais love and respect the monarchy and will not let anyone jeopardise this institution,” said 55-year-old homemaker Vandee Inthawut.

The protest leaders moved their rally schedule ahead by a few hours out of concern they would be blocked by royalist groups massing near Bangkok’s Democracy Monument. They are due to march to the Government House later in the afternoon.

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

The demonstrators have repeatedly defied Thailand’s law against insulting royalty by openly questioning the power and expenditure of King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

In a protest outside the Grand Palace last month attended by over 30,000 people, they also tried to submit a list of demands for monarchy reform directly to him via his privy council president.

Since assuming the throne in 2016, the King has taken personal ownership of an estimated over US$40 billion (S$54 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 German 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, sparking an impromptu rally in front of the Thai police headquarters in the evening. On Twitter that night, one of the top trending hashtags was a phrase sharply critical of the King.

Thailand, 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 unprecedented hardship has stoked public resentment at royal expenditure, which takes up almost 9 billion baht (S$392 million) in this year’s budget.

With additional reporting by Kannikar Petchkaew