Police in Thailand have summoned leaders of the months-long anti-government protests to face charges of insulting the monarchy and cordoned off parts of Bangkok, ahead of a planned demonstration to demand that the king give up control of the royal fortune.
It will be the first time such charges have been brought under so-called lese majeste laws which cover insults to the royal family in more than two years. Anyone found guilty faces up to 15 years in prison.
Protests that began in July against Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha have increasingly turned to demands to curb the powers of King Maha Vajiralongkorn, breaking a long-standing taboo on criticising the monarchy.
Parit “Penguin” Chiwarak, said his family had received a summons for lese majeste in addition to other charges and he was not afraid.
“The ceiling has been broken. Nothing can contain us anymore,” he wrote on Twitter. He told the Reuters news agency: “This will expose the brutality of the Thai feudal system to the world.”
Thai Lawyers for Human Rights said Parit was among 12 protest leaders including human rights lawyer Anon Numpha, Panupong “Mike” Jaadnok and prominent student leader Panusaya “Rung” Sithijirawattanakul to be sent a summons.
Neither was immediately available for comment.
A police source, who declined to be named because he was not authorised to speak to the media, told Reuters that seven protest leaders had been summoned and they had until November 30 to acknowledge the charges over comments made at protests on September 19 and 20.
The summonses came a day before a planned rally to the office that manages royal assets valued at tens of billions of dollars to demand that the king give up personal control of the fortune.
But instead of marching to the Crown Property Bureau, where police had set up barricades and planned to deploy nearly 6,000 officers, the venue was switched late on Tuesday.
Protesters said they would instead meet at the headquarters of the Siam Commercial Bank, in which the king owns a stake of more than 23 percent.
“Let’s reclaim the property that should belong to the people,” the FreeYouth protest group said.
It said the switch was made to avoid confrontation, including with royalists who had also planned to go to the Crown Property Bureau in defence of the monarchy.
Police were not immediately available for comment on the change.
“We call on the authorities to ensure the safety of all those demonstrating,” said Mu Sochua, a former Cambodian MP who is a board member of Asean Parliamentarians for Human Rights, a regional grouping.
“Resorting to violence or harsh measures to try to end the protests will do nothing except further entrench the view that the current government does not represent the views of the people. We call on Thai authorities to engage with representatives of the protesters, to adopt a conciliatory rather than a combative approach and listen to those calling for democratic reform.”
More than 50 people were hurt last week when police used water cannon and tear gas against thousands of protesters at parliament, in the most violent day of more than four months of demonstrations.
The Royal Palace has made no comment on the protests began, although the king said during a walkabout earlier this month that Thailand was “a land of compromise” when asked for comment on the demonstrations.
Prayuth has rejected protesters’ calls to resign and said last week that all laws would be used against protesters who break them – raising the concern of activists that the royal insult laws would be among them.
Thailand has one of the harshest royal defamation laws in the world. It is routinely interpreted to include any criticism of the monarchy – including content posted or shared on social media.
Under section 112 of Thailand’s penal code, anyone convicted of defaming, insulting or threatening the king, queen or heir faces between three and 15 years in prison on each count.