Thousands of protesters marched on the German embassy in Bangkok on Monday to ask for an investigation of the Thai king’s activities during lengthy stays in Germany as months of protests give rise to growing calls for reforms of the monarchy.
Berlin has said it would be unacceptable for King Maha Vajiralongkorn to conduct politics in Germany and Foreign Minister Heiko Mass said the European country continued to look into his behaviour during long sojourns in Bavaria.
Student-led protests that began by demanding the removal of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, a former military ruler, have also become the biggest challenge in decades to a monarchy that the Thai constitution says must be revered.
“We have three demands – first that the PM must resign, second that we want a new constitution from the people not the government, and third we want to reform the monarchy,” said one 16-year-old student protester who declined to be named.
Criticising the monarchy can mean a 15-year jail sentence in Thailand, but the protests have swept away the longstanding taboo on discussing it.
Protesters accuse the monarchy of helping to enable decades of domination by military rulers. They also complain about spending on the king’s European visits at a time the coronavirus has hit the tourism-reliant economy hard.
The political crisis in Thailand has also made the king’s presence a challenge for Germany.
“We are monitoring this long-term,” Maas said. “It will have immediate consequences if there are things that we assess to be illegal.”
Thailand’s parliament began a special session called to address the tensions on Monday.
A former military chief who staged the 2014 coup, Prime Minister Prayuth has faced increasing pressure in recent weeks by the protesters, who regard his premiership as illegitimate.
Prayuth last week recalled parliament – which was in recess – to discuss how to reduce tensions.
As Speaker of the House Chuan Leekpai began the session, only 450 of the total of 731 members of both houses had signed in for the meeting.
While Prayut acknowledged the protesters’ demands in his opening speech, the two-day parliamentary session has not listed them on its agenda, focusing instead on the “illegal” protests.
“Though the people have the freedom to protest based on the constitution, authorities need to control the illegal protests,” said Prayuth.
“I’m confident that today, regardless of our different political views, everyone still loves the country,” Prayuth said in his opening address.
Prayuth cautioned that the session would not discuss the monarchy’s role.
In remarks made to the special session of parliament on Monday, opposition leader called on the Thai prime minister to stop using the monarchy to justify his hold on power and resign.
“The prime minister is a major obstacle and burden to the country. Please resign and everything will end well,” said Sompong Amornvivat, leader of the opposition Pheu Thai party, the largest single party in parliament.
Members of the opposition Move Forward party accused Prayuth of trying to use the monarchy to keep power – particularly regarding an incident around a royal motorcade that was used to justify tough emergency measures on October 15.
Tensions spiked after protesters flashed three-finger salutes – a symbol of their movement – at Queen Suthida’s motorcade as it passed by. The premier responded by imposing emergency measures banning gatherings of more than four, while authorities arrested tens of activists.
Three activists have been charged under a rarely used law banning “violence against the queen”, which carries a maximum sentence of life in prison.
Prayuth’s critics say it was his government’s fault for not planning the convoy’s route better, and not that of the protesters he has blamed.
“There was an attempt to use the royal motorcade to distort the truth and make people hate and confront each other,” said Move Forward MP Suttawan Suban Na Ayuthaya. “Don’t bring the monarchy into this conflict.”
Prayuth revoked the measures a week later when they failed to discourage tens of thousands turning up in “guerrilla” protests across Bangkok.
Al Jazeera’s Scott Heidler, reporting from Bangkok, said the parliamentary session was “the first time there’s been a government forum for both sides to discuss the issue”.
“We’ll see a discussion over the next two days but there will be nothing legally binding coming out of this special session, which is largely seen as an attempt by the prime minister to de-escalate the situation,” he said.
The demands for royal reform from some protesters include the abolition the royal defamation law, a clear accounting of the palace’s finances, and a call for King Vajiralongkorn to stay out of politics.
Pro-royalist groups have emerged in response to these unprecedented challenges, gathering in counter-rallies to pronounce their love for the king.
On Monday, dozens of supporters in yellow shirts – the royal colour – gathered outside Parliament, telling MPs not to reform the monarchy.
“We do not want the monarchy topic to be discussed in Parliament,” said Suwit Thongprasert, a prominent royalist activist. “We are ready to protect the monarchy.”