Tens of thousands of pro-democracy demonstrators converged in the heart of Bangkok on Saturday despite rain showers as they began two days of protests to demand the government’s dissolution, a new constitution and reforms to the monarchy.
Protest organizers and police estimated Saturday’s crowd to be more than 100,000, making it one of the largest anti-government protests to take place here since tumultuous street demonstrations rocked the Thai capital in the lead-up to a military coup six years ago. International news services the Associated Press and Agence France-Press estimated the crowd to be between 20,000 and 30,000, which still puts the turnout among the highest for a protest here since 2014.
The gathering was the latest in a series of youth-led protests, which began in mid-July against the government of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha.
After gathering at the Bangkok campus of Thammasat University – where a crowd of demonstrators forced their way through a locked gate (see video) – the protesters crossed the street to the Royal Grounds near the Grand Palace where a stage was set up for speeches by rally leaders.
“The fight doesn’t end in one day so all people must participate,” Parit Chiwarak, a Thammasat student and protest leader who is nicknamed “The Penguin,” told journalists. “We came to the Royal Grounds with our hands up to show that we are unarmed, so there will not be a clash.”
The Bangkok Metropolitan Police deputy commander, meanwhile, said officers were lenient with the protesters following the advice of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha.
“So far the protest has gone on without violence even though the protesters pushed away the security railing at the Royal Grounds,” police Maj. Gen. Piya Tawichai told reporters, referring to barriers that had blocked entry to a field that takes up most of the grounds.
By Saturday night, the crowd’s size had diminished but many of the protestors pitched tents in the field where they planned to stay overnight.
The Royal Grounds, known as Sanam Luang in Thai, have been closed to the public since the cremation of King Bhumibol Adulyadej (Rama IX) in October 2017. The protesters are calling for reform of the monarchy now led by his heir, King Maha Vajiralongkorn (Rama X).
“I reaffirm here: the monarchy is not an obstacle to democracy. Other countries such as England, Spain, Sweden and Denmark have royals and democracy, but Thailand’s king has too much power,” Parit said.
Activist Sirawit Serithiwat, a former Thammasat student, said he was invited to join the protest because he and student organizers believed in the same ideology.
“Since the 2014 coup, the fallout remains – the retention of power,” he said from the protest stage, referring to the coup d’etat that brought Prayuth to power.
Prayuth, a retired general, was the top commander of the Royal Thai Army when he led the overthrow of the democratically elected government of Yingluck Shinawatra.
“People are fed up with it. We can’t retake the democracy despite holding a new election, so we are exerting our power to oust the government,” Sirawit told BenarNews.
Prayuth retained power as prime minister after the 2019 general election and a rewriting of the constitution that allowed 250 hand-picked senators to vote for the top government office.
Organizers of the protest said they were planning to march on Sunday to Government House, where Prayuth and other government officials have offices.
Srinakharinwirot University student Nut Kritanon said he joined the protesters at a rally last month because he worried about what he described as the government’s abuse of power. He said he needed to speak up even though he feared government retaliation.
“I think the military has too much power and is counter-productive to the nation. When military leaders enter politics, they don’t listen to the people, unlike representatives who at least care for their constituents,” he told BenarNews. “I came out because I want the military to stop undertaking coups and stay out of politics.”
The Bangkok Post reported that Thai expatriates on Saturday also participated in “coordinated flash mobs” across the world including in Tokyo, Sydney, Los Angeles, New York, Paris and Berlin in a show of support for the demonstrators.
Organizers chose this weekend for the rally to mark the 14th anniversary of the overthrow of then-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra on Sept. 19, 2006, and to symbolically call for no more military coups. Yingluck Shinawatra is his younger sister.
In a posting on his Facebook page marking the anniversary without specifically mentioning the rally, Thaksin said, “It is time for us to adjust our way of thinking,” adding, “the world is not the same.” Both Thaksin and his sister are living in exile.
In the days leading up to the rally, organizers said they expected crowds of 70,000 to 100,000 while authorities said 10,000 police would be on duty to maintain the peace.
On Thursday, Prayuth warned that a large-scale gathering could lead to a spread of COVID-19 – Thailand has seen about 3,500 cases since the outbreak began.
“When you gather in mobs you are creating an enormous risk of new infections,” the prime minister said on Sept. 17. “And with that, you also create enormous risk to the livelihoods of tens of millions of fellow Thais.”
Protesters wore facemasks and many had their temperature checked when they arrived at the university.
The demonstrations began on July 18 when thousands gathered at the Democracy Monument in Bangkok while thousands more gathered the next day in northern Chiang Mai province.
Since then, pro-democracy crowds have gathered across the nation in a series of protests. During an Aug. 10 rally, demonstrators released a list of 10 demands including a call to diminish the power of the monarchy through a change to the constitution.
Prior to this weekend’s events, police arrested 14 activists on a series of charges including sedition, organizing gatherings of 10 or more people to incite unrest, and leading mass gatherings that could spread COVID-19, while 15 others turned themselves in to law enforcers. Anon Numpa, a human rights lawyer and a leader of the protests, has been arrested three times.