BANGKOK - Thousands of pro-democracy demonstrators flocked to downtown Bangkok on Sunday (Oct 31), defying Covid-19 curbs against mass gatherings and a plea by Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha to refrain from street protests as Thailand prepares to welcome back more tourists.
Sunday's protesters called for the lese majeste law that makes it a crime to insult the monarchy, or Section 112 of the Thai Criminal Code, to be repealed.
Since last year, the student-led protest movement has also been calling for Mr Prayut to resign, the Constitution to be amended, and the monarchy to be reformed.
"Today, we protest to abolish 112. Because of this law we cannot have freedom of speech. We cannot say anything about the problems to do with the monarchy and how it can improve," prominent protest leader Panusaya "Rung" Sithijirawattanakul told The Straits Times on the sidelines of the demonstration.
Sunday's protest, which brought a carnival-like atmosphere to the shopping belt at Ratchaprasong with food, drink and music, comes on the eve of Thailand's major reopening to tourists.
From Monday, vaccinated tourists from more than 60 countries and territories can visit Thailand without needing to quarantine.
"We did not plan this on purpose," said Panusaya, referring to the timing of the protest.
"But even if we do not protest, people can still see how our country has not improved under this government."
The reopening is a vital lifeline for Thailand's travel and tourism sector, which used to make up close to one-fifth of its national income.
Strict border curbs, in place for more than a year to tackle the Covid-19 pandemic, have crippled the industry.
Around 7,000 foreign arrivals are expected at Suvarnabhumi Airport on Monday, Airports of Thailand president Nitinai Sirismatthakarn told the Bangkok Post.
While the protesters' demand for monarchy reform and the removal of Section 112 is not new, tensions over the use of the law have been rising following a string of arrests and charges against student protesters.
According to Thai Lawyers for Human Rights, at least 145 people are currently facing charges under Section 112.
Local media reported that five activists remain in custody pending trial on royal defamation charges, including protest leaders Parit "Penguin" Chiwarak and human rights lawyer Arnon Nampa.
Fellow student activist Patsaravalee "Mind" Tanakitvibulpon, 26, who is out on bail after being accused of lese majeste for a speech she made earlier this year, told ST: "I feel even more determined to fight. Because both the government and the judiciary at this time are unable to give justice to the people."
Patsaravalee acknowledged that Monday's reopening will help the economy recover and bring some financial relief, but noted that the public are still disgruntled.
"The negative feelings that people have towards the government are certain. (It will remain that way) until there is a revision of power structure that will effectively solve the political and administrative problems of the county."
The demonstration remained peaceful and ended at 8.30pm. However a faction of the protesters then fanned out on motorbikes to other areas including Din Daeng, where they launched fireworks and continued protesting.
On Friday, fresh orders banning rallies and activities deemed to be a Covid-19 risk were issued by the Thai authorities.
Taking effect on Monday, the new order bans rallies and risky activities, especially in the 17 provinces designated for tourism reopening, unless these activities are specifically permitted by the authorities.
Earlier last week, Mr Prayut had asked demonstrators not to ruin Thailand's image with street protests, saying it would discourage visitors.
"These protest photos are shown in the foreign media every time," he said.