Updated at 7:53 a.m. ET on 2020-10-15
Thousands of Thai pro-democracy protesters were told to exercise “self-control” as they marched toward the prime minister’s office in Bangkok on Wednesday, while thousands of royalist counter-demonstrators tried to block them by thronging routes used by the king and queen to carry out ceremonial duties.
Anon Numpa, a 36-year-old human rights lawyer-turned-activist who is a leader of Thailand’s new pro-democracy movement, urged the demonstrators to stay calm.
“Brothers and sisters, please have self-control. We adhere to peaceful methods,” Anon told the crowd. “Don’t be swayed by provocation. Don’t use force on anyone. Those who use force are not our allies.”
Since mid-July, Anon and other young Thais – mostly university students – have taken to the streets to call for the ouster of a government filled with key figures from a 2014 military coup as well as reforms to laws shielding the Thailand’s powerful monarchy, among other demands.
Wednesday’s pro-democracy protest included members of the Red Shirt movement – supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and his sister Yingluck, who were both toppled in coups in 2006 and 2014, respectively.
The demonstrators converged near a Bangkok landmark, the Democracy Monument, earlier than scheduled. Organizers said they feared that the Yellow Shirts who support the monarchy would occupy their prime area.
The rally was held on the 47th anniversary of a student-led protest in 1973 that led to the overthrow of the dictatorship of Thanom Kittikachorn.
King Maha Vajiralongkorn and Queen Suthida, who have spent most of their time in Germany since he succeeded his father four years ago, are in Thailand for a month of religious ceremonies after the three-month Buddhist Lent ended last week.
In a surprise incident, a motorcade carrying the queen and her stepson, Prince Dipangkorn Rasmijoti, passed the crowd, briefly trapping their car.
The protesters nearby gave them a three-fingered salute, inspired by “The Hunger Games” movie, to symbolize their resistance to the royals – an unprecedented happening in the country where the king is regarded as a demi-god.
Estimates of the crowd size varied from the police estimate of 8,000 to the organizers’ claim of 100,000.
A day earlier, Yellow Shirt leaders who had taken part in massive street protests that led to the forced ouster of Yingluck Shinawatra six years ago, announced plans to gather to show support for the monarchy. Sen. Somchai Sawangkarn estimated that 25,000 royalists attended the rally.
The Yellow Shirt crowd was its largest counter-protest to the pro-democracy demonstrators who have held a series of rallies beginning in mid-July to call for the resignation of Prime Minister Chan-o-cha – the retired army chief who led the 2014 coup – a rewrite of the constitution, and a reform of the royal institution itself.
Pro-democracy protesters speculated that many of the Yellow Shirts were tied to the government, noting they saw people being bused to the area while many men with shaved head haircuts –typically worn by military and police – lined the route.
While much of the day was peaceful, two men started fighting and throwing water bottles at each other as other protesters broke police barricades to a march to Government House, where Prayuth and other members of the administration have their offices, about 3 km (1.8 miles) away.
On the eve of the pro-democracy rally, police arrested 21 protesters, according to an attorney with Thai Lawyers for Human Rights, a local NGO.
“Dusit Municipal Court denied bail for 19 young activists and protesters, citing the alleged offenders were deemed to be causing violence and attacking on-duty police. If bailed out, they likely will protest and cause unrest/disorder again,” Sirikan Charoensiri said in a Facebook post.
The rally followed a two-day event in mid-September that drew more than 100,000, according to organizers and police officials.
Since the first protest on July 18, more than 60 protesters have been arrested, according to organizers.
‘I want true democracy’
Worasit Ratanasithiroj, a retired teacher from Sisaket province, said he believed the students had good intentions.
“I believe all Thais want to see the nation progress, modernize, as do those students who have hope for their future,” Worasit, 70, told BenarNews. “I don’t believe students hate the monarchy, but they want to make it better.”
Meanwhile, a Sri Pathum University student said she wanted to see changes.
“I want true democracy where all are equal. I want to have the constitution amended and place the monarchy under it,” the student who identified herself as Peung over privacy concerns told BenarNews. “I came out for myself, my future.”
“We have democracy with the king as the head of state, but the monarchy has much more power than the system allows,” Anon told protesters during an August rally. “We need to seriously deal with this matter and allow everyone to speak out publicly and with due respect to the institution, otherwise we can’t solve problems.”
Meanwhile Prime Minister Prayuth said he was concerned for the safety of the protesters even as they were calling for his resignation, according to his spokesman, Anucha Burapachaisri.
The spokesman called for the students’ parents to take them home, noting the PM had said that their action was subversive and that he also called for harsh punishment.
Some of the protesters announced plans to camp overnight near Government House. The prime minister had left his office earlier in the day, according to Anucha.
Anon said his group planned to resume protests late Thursday afternoon.
Authorities ordered the campers to disperse as darkness fell, Reuters reported.
“This is not a peaceful protest,” the news agency quoted police spokesman Col. Krisana Patanacharoen as telling a late-night news conference. “Protesters have continuously violated the law.”
Earlier in the evening, many protestors sat on mats near Government House.
“We won’t leave until Prayuth resigns,” Anon said, according to Reuters.
Since converting from an absolute monarchy to democracy in 1932, Thailand has seen more than 20 military coups – including the most recent one led by Prayuth.
On Oct. 6, new Army Chief Gen. Narongpan Jittkaewtae told reporters that the chances of another coup were “zero, unless a certain side causes violence and turmoil.”
A retired army officer said the protests could end soon.
“Authorities let them do what they did, but there could be a crackdown Thursday or a cut off of supplies to pressure them to stop the protests,” Nanthadej Meksawat, a former army intelligence officer, told BenarNews Wednesday.
Politician Pita Limjaroenrat, the leader of the opposition Move Forward Party, arrived at the scene Wednesday night to observe the campers. He and others who were members of the Future Forward Party, which has been disbanded by a court order.
“I think authorities were more lenient today compared to previous protests, though scuffles occurred,” he told reporters, adding “But we cannot rest.”
This updated version corrects the spelling of the police spokesman's name.