BANGKOK (BLOOMBERG) - Thousands of pro-democracy protesters on Wednesday (Nov 25) in Thailand gathered outside the main office of the nation's most valuable lender, in which King Maha Vajiralongkorn is the biggest shareholder, as they push for more transparency and accountability from the monarchy.
The demonstration outside Siam Commercial Bank Pcl was organised to "reclaim the assets that should belong to the people and the nation", Free Youth, one of the protest groups, said on Twitter. The bank closed its headquarters as protesters shifted the venue last-minute following a police ban on gatherings within 150m of the Crown Property Bureau office, the original site of the rally.
King Vajiralongkorn's wealth has become a key focus for protesters following legal changes after he ascended the throne in 2016 gave him the power to put his name on the assets of the Crown Property Bureau, which included holdings of prime properties in Bangkok and shares in major listed companies, including Siam Commercial Bank. They also consolidated management of the assets and eliminated the finance minister's role as the agency's ex-officio chairman.
The protesters have demanded those changes be revoked to make a clear division between the king's personal assets and other palace property they want under the control of the Finance Ministry. They also want the national budget allocated to the monarchy be reduced in line with growth in Thailand's tourism-reliant economy, which has been hard hit by the pandemic.
The Bureau of the Royal Household declined to comment, and the Crown Property Bureau didn't answer calls seeking comment on Wednesday. Hundreds of pro-royalist supporters have also gathered on Wednesday in another part of the capital.
Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, who has repeatedly rejected calls to quit, toughened his stance on demonstrators last week. The government and security agencies "will now enforce all laws available to deal with protesters who break the law and ignore other people's rights and freedom", he said last week.
At least 12 protest leaders received summonses from police on charges of royal defamation, according to the Thai Lawyers for Human Rights. It's the first time police are using the lese majeste law, which can lead to lengthy jail sentences, against protesters since the movement began in July.
The youth-led protest movement is calling for a more equal and democratic society with a more accountable monarchy and an end to military coups. They're also seeking the resignation of Mr Prayut, a former army chief who led a 2014 coup, and a rewriting of the constitution that helped Mr Prayut retain his power after elections.
The protesters earlier chose to hold a rally in front of the Crown Property Bureau because they "want to strike a blow to the financial basis for the king's power and wealth," said Prof Tamara Loos who specialises in history and Thai studies at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.
"These young protesters have permanently transformed public culture regarding the monarchy, which will be subject to continued critique," she said. "Cracking down on protesters now only delays a future conflict between those who want genuine change in Thailand's political institutions and the military."
Last week, the king appointed one his close aides, former army chief Apirat Kongsompong, as deputy head of the Crown Property Bureau. During his time as army chief, Mr Apirat was vocal in his attacks on the opposition and pledged to defend the monarchy.
Lawmakers last week voted on a pathway to set up a charter rewriting committee but rejected any amendments to the monarchy-related section of constitution.