Bangkok city officials on Monday removed and handed to police "as evidence" a plaque that pro-democracy activists had placed on royal ceremonial grounds on the weekend stating that the country belongs to its people and not its king.
In placing the plaque at dawn Sunday as part of a massive, two-day anti-government demonstration, activists had said they were symbolically replacing another plaque, which went missing in April 2017 and commemorated the country’s transition from an absolute to a constitutional monarchy after the Siamese Revolution of 1932. That plaque was regarded as marking the birth of Thai democracy.
Officials from the Fine Arts Department filed a complaint with the police at the Chanasongkram station in Bangkok, accusing the protest leaders – mostly university students – of tampering with the Royal Grounds, a site reserved for royal rites after the cremation of King Bhumibol, the father of current King Maha Vajiralongkorn, in 2017.
“We’ve filed a complaint in accordance with Article 10 of the Archeological Act, which prevents tampering at the site,” Staporn Tiengtham, a Fine Arts official, told reporters. “The charge calls for up to a three-year jail term, and/or a fine of up to 300,000 baht (U.S. $9,574).”
The department, which comes under the Ministry of Culture, is tasked with managing the country’s cultural heritage.
Col. Worasak Pisitbanakorn, the chief of the Chanasongkram police station, said investigators had received the report and police observed the removal of the plaque before dawn on Monday. The Bangkok Metropolitan Police Bureau said it was being kept as evidence.
On Saturday and Sunday, tens of thousands of protesters braved intermittent rain as they took part in the pro-democracy rally at the Royal Grounds, or Sanam Luang in Thai, in the biggest anti-government demonstration since 2014. They gathered to voice their support to demands by the United Front of Thammasat and Demonstration calling for Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha to resign, to have the constitution rewritten and to reform the monarchy.
The protest leaders placed the plaque in cement on the Royal Grounds early Sunday after spending the night there.
“Here the people express their views that this country belongs to the people, not to the king,” it read.
Parit Chiwarak, a Thammasat University student, was a leader of the group responsible for the installation.
“It doesn’t matter, I expected it to be removed,” Parit told reporters. “The plaque was not only installed at the Royal Grounds but in the hearts of people. We will give people the mold [to make replicas] as well.”
Police consider Lese-Majeste, other charges
In a separate press briefing on Monday, national police spokesman Lt. Gen. Piya Uthayo said the protest leaders likely could be charged with violating Lese-Majeste, the strict anti-royal defamation law. The Thai monarchy is considered semi divine and is protected by Lese-Majeste, which subjects violators to up to 15 years in prison.
Nearly 100 people have been charged under the law since 2014, according to iLaw, an online legal advocacy group. Recently, law enforcers have instead chosen to file charges of sedition, according to experts.
Since the protests kicked off on July 18, police have arrested 14 activists, including Parit, 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. In addition, 15 others turned themselves in to law enforcers.
“The most important thing is there were inappropriate wordings against the institutions: Nation, Religion and the Monarchy,” Piya told reporters. “We as law enforcement officers will duly act against that.”
Meanwhile, a former leader of a royalist movement said he had filed a Lese-Majeste complaint against the protest group’s three leaders, namely Parit, Panusaya Sithijirawattankul and Anon Numpa. Anon has been arrested three times over comments at previous rallies.
“I’ve filed a complaint with Chanasongkram police against those students who are deemed to have violated Article 112 of the Penal Code (Lese-Majeste). … Panusaya, Anon and Parit,” Tul Sithisomwong told reporters. “They mentioned the monarchy, the king accusing him of behaving inappropriately, ignoring people’s hardship while suppressing them, which is defamation.”
Police said 16 protest leaders were under investigation and charges would be filed against them if substantial evidence was established. Besides tampering, police are considering charging them with trespassing and violating a law on public gatherings, among others.
Organizers and police said more than 100,000 gathered at the Royal Grounds on Saturday, making it one of the largest anti-government protests since street demonstrations rocked the Thai capital in the lead-up to a military coup six years ago.
After thousands spent the night camping at the Royal Grounds, the organizers set the plaque in cement before moving on to a rally at the Privy Council building on Sunday morning.