Pro-democracy activists in Thailand have scaled a massive monument in the capital, Bangkok, draping it in crimson cloth and calling for an end to the kingdom’s draconian royal defamation laws.
The protesters on Saturday threw paint at police and several small bangs were heard during a standoff near a city shrine after the demonstration had moved from the Democracy Monument and the main leaders had called for it to disperse. Activists said the red cloth on the monument in Bangkok’s historic quarter represented the blood of fighters for democracy.
Police deputy spokesman Kissana Pattanacharoen said more than 20 police officers were injured in the clashes and seven or eight people were detained for questioning. He also said at least one firecracker exploded at the scene.
Momentum for the youth-led protests movement calling for an overhaul to Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha’s government has slowed in recent months, due to a fresh wave of coronavirus infections in Thailand.
But the recent detention of four prominent leaders under charges of insulting the monarchy in mass anti-government demonstrations last year spurred hundreds of protesters again into action.
The “lese majeste” law, contained in Article 112 of Thailand’s criminal code, carries penalties of up to 15 years in prison. Student activists say the law has been abused for decades to crush political opposition to a military-royalist establishment.
“We want Article 112 to be revoked plus the release of four of our leaders and other political prisoners convicted by this law,” said protester Chutima Kaenpetch, 24.
As night fell, hundreds marched to the Grand Palace but were met with police in full riot gear and barbed wire surrounding the area. Although protest leader Panusaya Sithijirawattanakul called an end to the rally, several protesters continued to stay on to face off against the authorities.
The government led by former military ruler Prayuth denies any abuse of the law, saying political opposition is allowed but breaking the law by insulting the king will be punished.
Thailand is officially a constitutional monarchy, but the king is held in special esteem by conservative Thai culture that portrays him as the protector of the Buddhist religion and the nation.
The student movement that began last year smashed long-held taboos by openly criticising King Maha Vajiralongkorn, who they say has amassed too much personal power since taking the throne after the death of his father in 2016.
The Royal Palace has declined to directly comment on the protests, but Prayuth and government officials have said the criticism of the king is unlawful and inappropriate.
At its peak, the rallies drew tens of thousands, with demonstrators drawing inspiration from Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement.
In November, police deployed tear gas and water cannon against protesters, using liquid laced with an irritant, and clashes left more than 40 people wounded.