Young activists take on powerful monarchy and pro-army leaders in what could be a ‘new turning point’ for Thai politics.
Thousands of Thai protesters took to the streets of Bangkok on Wednesday night to call on King Maha Vajiralongkorn to give up control of a royal fortune valued in the tens of billions of dollars, turning their protest movement directly on the once-untouchable monarchy’s vast wealth.
The protesters have already broken a long-standing taboo by criticising the king and police summoned many of the best-known protest leaders ahead of the rally on charges of insulting the monarchy – the first time the law has been used since early 2018.
At least 8,000 demonstrators – many brandishing the yellow toy ducks that have become the latest symbol of the movement – gathered near the headquarters of the Siam Commercial Bank (SCB) to protest at the secrecy surrounding the monarch’s assets.
They chose the venue after the authorities erected shipping container barricades and razor wire around their original target – the Crown Property Bureau. SCB is Thailand’s biggest bank and the king, who owns a 23 percent stake in the lender, is its largest shareholder.
“We don’t know how he manages it. How he uses it,” Gail, a 53-year-old Bangkok consultant, told the AFP news agency, as she expressed concern about the control of the royal assets. Their total value has not been made public, but has been estimated at more than $30bn which would make the king the world’s richest monarch.
“He should live very frugally. He doesn’t care about the economic situation. He doesn’t care about the people’s well-being,” she added.
The youth-led protests began in July with demands for a new constitution, the resignation of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha and the reform of the once untouchable monarchy.
Demonstrations have been largely peaceful, but several bangs were heard as Wednesday’s protest dispersed and medics said one man had been shot. A police officer said there appeared to have been a clash between rival groups of vocational students.
Parit Chiwarak, among the protest leaders facing royal insult charges, said: “Millions of families are struggling so how can we give our taxpayers’ money to just one family to spend luxuriously?”
— Richard Barrow in Thailand (@RichardBarrow) November 25, 2020
The protesters want to make the king more accountable under the constitution as well as reverse changes which gave him personal control not only of the royal wealth but some army units.
The bureau’s board was previously headed by the finance minister in an arrangement that gave a sheen of public oversight.
The palace has made no comment since the protests began, but when the king was asked about the protesters recently he said they were loved “all the same”.
Some of the king’s critics quoted those words sarcastically after the summonses on charges of insulting the monarchy, which Prayuth said in June were not being used at the request of the king.
Thailand has one of the harshest lese majeste laws in the world. It is routinely interpreted to include any criticism of the monarchy – including content posted or shared on social media.
Police sources told the Reuters news agency that 15 protest leaders face charges, which they must acknowledge by the end of the month.
Government spokesman Anucha Burapachaisri told AFP the authorities were “increasingly concerned about attempts to undermine the rule of law” and would use “all pertaining laws” to pursue the troublemakers.
It is the first time the law has been used since early 2018. International rights groups have urged the authorities not to prosecute.
“The international community must urge the Thai government to handle the ongoing protests through dialogue and within the framework provided by international human rights standards,” Adilur Rahman Khan, the secretary-general of the International Federation for Human Rights, said in a statement.