Thousands gathered in the nation’s capital for this weekend’s rallies, which began on Saturday and were part of a protest movement that has been gaining momentum since July. Student leader and activist Panasaya “Rung” Sitthijirawattanakul, 21, took to a public stage late Saturday to directly address Thailand’s King Vajiralongkorn — an act that, under strict national laws, could be punishable by 15 years in jail if her comments are considered defamatory to the monarchy.
Panasaya listed to the crowd ten demands by the United Front of Thammasat and Demonstration, a student union group of which she is the spokesperson. The demands include revoking laws against defaming the monarchy, allowing for freedom of expression, abolishing royal offices, disbanding the king’s royal guards.
In an interview with CNN, Panasaya said: “I mean no harm to the monarchy.” But she also shared a message to the king: “You should reform it so that the monarchy can continue to exist in Thailand … If you pay attention to what I am saying, I’d like you to consider our demands.”
On Sunday, with thousands still on the street, a group from the rally announced it intended to deliver the ten demands to the Privy Council, the king’s advisers.
However, Panasaya and other marchers were stopped by police as they attempted to approach the council. In an exchange that was broadcast live on television, Panasaya instead agreed to hand the protesters’ demands for a new constitution, monarchy reforms, and the ouster of the military junta to the police, and declared a victory for protesters.
Government spokesman, Anucha Burapachaisri, told CNN: “I am glad it is over in a peaceful manner. As we have put the safety of protesters as our priority. And that has been carried very well by our officers.”
Asked about the submission of a reform letter to the King, he said: “I am aware of their demands about monarchy reform from listening to their speeches on the stage but I don’t have them in detail yet. I would need time to gather info before we have further comments on this.”
Weekend protests escalate
On Saturday afternoon, protest leaders pushed Thammasat University’s gates open and began to gather in the rain there and at Sanam Luang — a public square near the king’s official residence at the Grand Palace.
The ongoing movement began with students in towns across the country — but have since attracted a large cross-section of society. Protesters are calling for the resignation of the Prime Minister; a rewriting of the constitution, which was drafted by the military; and for authorities to stop intimidating activists.
An increasingly central part of protesters’ demands, however, is reform of the much-revered monarchy.
It’s a radical idea in Thailand, where the powerful royal institution is regarded by many with deity-like reverence. The country has some of the strictest lese majeste laws in the world and defaming the king, queen, heir-apparent or regent can mean a 15-year jail sentence.
Politician and leader of the Move Forward Party, Pita Limjaroenrat, said his group was monitoring the Thai student protests and will propose a council meeting to “re-write the Constitution peacefully.”
The best solution, Limjaroenrat says, is to elect a “group of persons” to re-write it. He told the media that if change does not occur in the country “the people will keep coming out on the street.”
“Today we come here to monitor the protesters and the officers. There are so many people from different kinds of jobs out today. They want some changes,” Limjaroenrat said.
He wants to ask Thailand’s Prime Minister to “come out, talk and listen,” to the protesters gathered at Thammasat University.
“People come out for equality with everything,” he said. “This assembly can end easily by listening.”
Authorities warn against demonstrating
Superintendent of Chana Songkram Metropolitan Police made an announcement outside the university on Saturday warning students to stop the protest because permission was not issued for a public assembly and people have been asked not to gather due to Covid-19.
In a briefing on Saturday morning, the commander of the Thai Royal Police told people not to believe what he called rumors that police will “suppress the mobs” and urged officers not to react if “provoked.”
Thammasat University is symbolic as it was the site of the 1976 massacre, when state security and far-right paramilitary forces opened fire on leftist students protesting the return of a former military dictator. The university has since become the heart of student activism in Thailand.
On Thursday, the Prime Minister warned protesters planning anti-government and anti-royal rallies that they could cause economic destruction if they go ahead.
“When you gather in mobs, you are creating an enormous risk of new infections. And with that, you also create an enormous risk to the livelihoods of tens of millions of fellow Thais. Any major flare-up of infections will lead to terrible consequences and even worse economic destruction, the likes of which we have never seen,” Prayut said.
The Prime Minister did not name protest groups individually or specifically address the protests set to take place this weekend. He acknowledged “now, loudly and clearly that I hear you have political grievances, and that you have issues with the constitution. I respect your opinions.”
Prayut said in the address that he had asked the police to be tolerant but warned that “Your protests delay economic recovery because you affect business confidence, and you affect the confidence of tourists to return to our country when we are ready to receive them.”
Why they are protesting
The protests come after years of political upheaval marked by a military coup in 2014, followed by failed promises to restore democracy, and what activists say is a repression of civil rights and freedoms.
It’s within this atmosphere that their ire is now being directed toward King Maha Vajiralongkorn, who assumed the throne in 2016 and was crowned in May 2019.
Vajiralongkorn is believed to spend much of his time overseas and has been largely absent from public life in Thailand as the country grappled with the coronavirus pandemic.
The Crown Property Act, passed in 1936, reorganized the Thai royal family’s assets into separate categorizes for royal assets. The repeal of the act meant that the Crown’s and the King’s personal holdings were placed into a single category to be administered by King Vajiralongkorn.
Although the absolute monarchy was abolished in Thailand in 1932, the monarch still wields significant political influence. Thais are still expected to follow a long tradition of worshiping the royal institution.
Change appears to taking root, however.
CNN cannot independently verify the videos.
Traditionally, Thai citizens are supposed to stand still to pay respects to the anthem — played twice daily in public spaces — and the rule is even stricter in schools.
“The protests in Thailand are historic because this is the first time in Thailand’s history that urban demonstrators have demanded such reforms,” Paul Chambers, a lecturer and special adviser at Naresuan University’s Center of ASEAN Community Studies, told CNN last month.
CNN’s Jaide Garcia and Emma Reynolds contributed to this report.