For the first time in decades, people are openly defying the authority of the monarchy.
A prominent Thai protest leader is resting in a hospital in Bangkok on Saturday, after he was rushed overnight from a police station as chaos erupted when he and two others were released on bail over sedition charges.
Panupong “Mike” Jadnok appeared to be unconscious as he was loaded into an ambulance on Friday night. Local media said he fainted after being subjected to a “chokehold” by plain-clothes police, who apparently tried to rearrest him and his companions immediately after their release.
Images on social media posted on Saturday showed Panupong resting in a hospital bed at the Rama 9 Hospital.
He, Panusaya “Rung” Sithijirawattanakul and Parit “Penguin” Chiwarak – in custody since mid-October – are among the best-known faces of Thailand’s pro-democracy movement.
Protesters have demanded reforms to the country’s monarchy and for Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha – the former military chief who staged a 2014 coup – to resign.
The student-led rallies, which have been going almost daily for months, are also calling for a rewrite of the military-scripted constitution and an end to the alleged government harassment of political opponents.
After a court ordered the release of the three activists, police apparently were considering outstanding arrest warrants against them late on Friday.
‘Wind of change has arrived’
Parit, shirtless and with a buzz cut, dared officers to rearrest him as he addressed a crowd of about 300 supporters outside the station, who sang songs.
“The iron bars can imprison the stars but not the starlight. In my heart, I still have faith in the people. The wind of change, the wind of democracy has arrived in Thailand,” he said.
“We will fight the darkness with the starlight. We will fight evil with flowers. And we will fight guns with white ribbons.”
Rung, another protest leader whose long blonde locks were cut and dyed black during her time in prison, was given a bouquet of flowers by the crowd.
“The movement has to go on. Everybody must recommit to non-violence,” Rung said.
“If violence happens, it’s not from us. Even though we are getting more frustrated, we must not fall for their ploy.”
Students skip graduation over king
Among the royal reforms sought are the abolition of the draconian lese majeste law which shields the monarchal family from defamation, a clear accounting of the palace’s finances, and for King Maha Vajiralongkorn to stay out of politics.
Such calls are unprecedented in Thailand, where criticism of the royal family is taboo.
Many of students on Friday boycotted their graduation ceremony at Thammasat University, where the king – who spends much of his time in Germany – was handing out degrees.
“Some people say it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience (to meet the king). I don’t want to meet him. I don’t want to pay respect to people like him,” one graduate, a 24-year-old who identified himself as Jack, told the AFP news agency.
“Why do we need to worship him like a god? I’ve always asked myself these questions,” another graduate, Bowie, told AFP.
An AFP reporter at the scene said the number of students present was visibly smaller than in previous years.
Thammasat University has a reputation for liberal views and was the scene of a bloody crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in 1976.
University officials did not immediately reply to a request for comment.
The king was expected to attend another graduation ceremony on Saturday and Prayuth issued a warning to students not to step out of line.
Ahead of the second day of graduation ceremonies on Saturday, security was beefed up at Thammasat University, according to reports, with authorities reportedly checking ID cards based on police databases, as well as possible weapons.