Thousands march to deliver letters to Thai King

Protesters getting soaked after police deployed water cannon during a march to the Grand Palace in Bangkok yesterday. Demonstrators hauled along mock mailboxes for people to stuff letters to King Maha Vajiralongkorn.
Protesters getting soaked after police deployed water cannon during a march to the Grand Palace in Bangkok yesterday. Demonstrators hauled along mock mailboxes for people to stuff letters to King Maha Vajiralongkorn.PHOTO: REUTERS

BANGKOK • Thai police used water cannon against protesters in Bangkok once more yesterday as thousands marched to the Grand Palace, raising tensions in a kingdom increasingly riven by conflict over the role of its monarchy.

The young protesters, who have been staging flash mobs all over the country since January, said they wanted to deliver letters of demand to King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

"We are marching to hand our letters to the King, to talk about our difficulties and our suffering," 25-year-old Patsaravalee "Mind" Tanakitvibulpon, one of the leaders, told the crowd. "Our three demands remain the same."

They hauled along bright red mock mailboxes where people were encouraged to stuff their individual letters. They also held aloft a giant mock-up of an envelope, addressed simply to "Vajiralongkorn".

In a letter released to the press and addressed to the King, they said: "When you hear all the flattering praise from the people, you must also hear fearless criticisms and suggestions all the same. When the King truly cherishes democracy, all people will find happiness. The three demands from the people are the utmost compromise."

Protesters want Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha to resign, the military-backed Constitution to be amended, and the monarchy to be reformed.

The last demand is the most contentious, given that 68-year-old King Vajiralongkorn has taken control of two army units and personal ownership of the multibillion-dollar crown assets since he ascended the throne in 2016. While he keeps a home in Germany and spends much of his time there, he is currently on an extended sojourn in Thailand.

Demonstrators want to trim his powers in keeping with Thailand's status as a constitutional monarchy. They also want him to rein in his spending, in view of the country's Covid-19-induced economic hardship.

The protests have lasted for months and sustained their momentum despite the arrests of key leaders, morphing into a fluid "leaderless" movement which swiftly mobilises crowds via social media.

Royalists have responded by rallying supporters to gather while wearing yellow to demonstrate fealty to the King.

In an apparent charm offensive, the palace has relaxed its strict protocol to allow people to get closer to the King. In the past few weeks, he has waded through adoring crowds outside the palace with Queen Suthida, praising key royalist leaders face to face and posing for selfies.

On Nov 1, he even gave a surprise interview to a British journalist from Channel 4. Asked what he thought about the protesters, he said: "We love them all the same."

Asked if there was any room for compromise, he replied: "Thailand is the land of compromise."

Protesters have since latched onto the King's words and appealed to him to treat them with the same courtesy he treats royalists.

Yesterday marked the second time police turned water cannon on protesters. Their first use on Oct 16 sparked so much outrage that Mr Prayut was eventually pressured to lift a state of serious emergency in Bangkok in order to lower tensions.

According to advocacy group Thai Lawyers for Human Rights, at least 173 people have been arrested this year for their involvement in the protests.

Ms Patsaravalee has been charged with sedition for a protest outside the German embassy on Oct 26, when protest leaders delivered a letter appealing to Berlin to probe if the King conducted politics from German soil - which the German Foreign Minister had earlier said was not allowed.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 09, 2020, with the headline 'Thousands march to deliver letters to Thai King'. Print Edition | Subscribe