A masked figure, stained with fake blood, is left hanging from a tree in Bangkok on Sept. 20 following an overnight pro-democracy rally in Sanam Luang. Thousands of protesters cheered as activists installed a plaque declaring that Thailand 'belongs to the people' in the boldest show of defiance in a youth-led movement that is questioning the monarchy's role. (Photo: Jack Taylor/AFP)
They came bearing signs and holding up the three-fingered salute they had adopted from the Hunger Games movies. Some were dressed in flamboyant costumes and funky tunes blared from loudspeakers.
Yet despite the festive atmosphere, the tens of thousands of mostly young pro-democracy protesters who gathered on a royal cremation ground beside Bangkok’s Grand Palace on Sept. 19 for the largest anti-government rally in years were dead serious about their collective aim: sweeping political reforms.
During fiery speeches delivered from a stage, several protest leaders, including university students, threw down the gauntlet to the country’s repressive military-allied government by insisting that nothing short of a return to true democracy would suffice.
The mass rally was the culmination of almost daily youth-led protests that have been gathering momentum since July as young Thais have been demanding a return to democracy in a country ruled by a regime that seized power in a military coup in 2014 and gave its rule a veneer of democratic legitimacy after only partially free and transparent parliamentary elections last year.
“Prayut needs to go. We want him out,” a young protester bearing a satirical hand-drawn caricature of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, a former army chief who spearheaded the coup, told UCA News.
But the protesters pledged to achieve more than just get the prime minister to resign. Another main theme of the protest was a direct challenge to the country’s monarchy.
The monarchy has long been officially portrayed in Thailand as an inviolate institution that is deserving of worship for its role in Thai society. Yet more and more young Thais see the monarchy, which is protected by law against any criticism, as an outdated institution that continues to wield outsize political influence, which needs to be curbed along constitutional lines.
Defying a law against royal defamation, numerous participants held handwritten signs that mocked King Maha Vajiralongkorn, 68, who ascended to the throne in 2016 after the death of his father, King Bhumibol, who had reigned for seven decades, and does not enjoy the same widespread adulation as his late father did.
“I will never be on my knees for dictatorship,” Arnon Nampa, a human rights lawyer who has been a leader of the protest movement, said from a stage to loud cheers from thousands, referring to the custom that requires commoners to prostrate themselves in the presence of royals.
“Unless the monarchy [abides by] the constitution, we will never achieve true democracy,” said Arnon, who has been facing charges of sedition and other crimes, along with dozens of other young activists, because of their participation in earlier protests.
He later led a group of demonstrators in replacing a plaque in the pavement near the Grand Palace that commemorated a revolution orchestrated by progressive army officers in 1932 that overthrew absolute monarchy in Thailand.
“At this place the people have expressed their will: that this country belongs to the people and is not the property of the monarch as they have deceived us,” the plaque read.
The original plaque, which had been in place for decades, went missing in mysterious circumstances in 2017 and was replaced with a new one that promotes loyalty to the monarchy. Many people suspected that the government was directly responsible for the switch.
“Obviously, they [the authorities] made the plaque disappear so that people would forget about their history,” a protester who identified himself with his nickname as Peng told UCA News. “But we won’t forget.”
The new plaque has already been removed by authorities.
Simultaneously with the mass protest in Bangkok, numerous small rallies in support of democracy in Thailand were being held by Thai expats and activists across Europe and elsewhere from Copenhagen in Denmark and Helsinki in Finland to Berlin in Germany.
By openly challenging the political influence of the monarchy and its alleged alliance with the Thai Royal Army, demonstrators have dispensed with an age-old taboo in what is a historic development, prominent observers say.
“It’s hard to overstate the importance [of today’s protest] really. We’re seeing historic scenes here,” Andrew MacGregor Marshall, a British journalist and author who has written extensively about Thailand’s monarchy and is a persona non grata in the country, told a UK television channel from his home in Edinburgh, Scotland, on Sept. 19.
“For several centuries it has really been taboo to criticize the monarchy at all,” he noted. “Now symbolically they [the protesters] are standing right outside the Grand Palace in the heart of Bangkok to press these demands.”
Yet MacGregor Marshall cautioned that it was unlikely that either the military-led regime or the monarchy would voluntarily acquiesce in those demands even in the face of mounting mass protests. He warned that the authorities could soon respond with force to stop further protests.
At the protest site in Bangkok, however, thousands of young Thais remained defiant, bursting into chants well into the night. “We won’t stop until the dark power is gone,” they intoned.