Thai police on Friday arrested a student leader of mass protests that have called for the dissolution of the government and lessening the power of the monarchy, as more demonstrations sprang up in and around Bangkok.
Activist Parit Chiwarak, a student at Thammasat University who is nicknamed “The Penguin,” was taken into custody on sedition and other charges, three days after Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha warned that the protests made up largely of young Thais had gone “too far.”
“I do not accept this process and do not accept this authority,” Parit said on Friday.
Parit was the third leader of the protests to be arrested and charged in connection with the street demonstrations that began in mid-July and have spread to other parts of the country. The two others, including another university student, were released on bail but took part in at least one mass protest earlier this week, where some 5,000 demonstrators openly questioned the institution of the royalty and laws that protect and empower it.
“How chaotic is the call for democracy? We have always studied that Thailand was ruled under a democratic system with the king as the head of state,” the student activist said in a recording posted to his fan page on Facebook.
Speaking to reporters at the Samranrat Police Station on Friday, Royal Thai Police deputy spokesperson Lt. Col. Kritsana Phattanacharoen said Parit’s arrest warrant did not include a complaint that he had violated Lese-Majeste, the strict law that forbids criticism of the royals.
“It is not true but we have heard that there was a [Lese-Majeste] complaint filed on Aug. 12,” Kritsana said, adding an investigation into the complaint was ongoing.
Parit’s arrest was broadcast live on Facebook by supporters. He was taken into custody on charges stemming from a rally at Bangkok’s Democracy Monument on July 18, but he did not ask for bail and was detained at Samranrat police station.
That demonstration marked the beginning of the so-called Free Youth movement and was the catalyst for the ongoing protests. Among their original demands, the protestors called for the government to dissolve parliament, to stop harassing dissidents and to amend the 2017 Constitution, which they said was tailored to enable Prayuth to maintain power.
On Friday, Parit said the country was not run as a democracy and described as a show last year’s general election, which returned Prayuth, a former junta leader and army chief who had spearheaded a 2014 coup, to power.
“We have to come out to call for democracy. I do not accept any legal action because I believe I am not guilty,” he said.
Meanwhile, protesters gathered at Chulalongkorn University, Ramkhamhaeng University, Triam Udom Suksa School – a high school – and at Nonthaburi pier outside of Bangkok on Friday evening.
With his arrest Parit joined student activist Panupong Jadnok, 23, and human rights lawyer Anon Numpa, 35 – the two other high-profile leaders of the protests – in being charged with sedition. All three were also charged with organizing gatherings of 10 or more people to threaten unrest, leading mass gatherings that could spread the coronavirus and five other charges, police said.
Panupong and Anon were freed on bail Aug. 8. However on Friday, police asked a court to revoke their bail, according to a statement by Human Rights Watch.
On Monday and at a previous rally on Aug. 3, Anon challenged the monarchy – the country’s most powerful institution – by calling for its influence to be curtailed.
On Aug. 10, he addressed thousands of anti-government protesters who had gathered at Thammasat University. The group presented 10 demands including a call to revoke Article 6 of the Thai Constitution that shields the monarchy from prosecution and revoke Lese-Majeste.
Meanwhile, university lecturers, civil society and cultural network members have gathered more than 1,000 signatures of people calling for their 10 demands to be met.
Prior to Monday’s major rally, pro- and anti-government groups appeared before parliament in Bangkok to issue opposing demands.
Sumet Trakulwunnoo, a coordinator of a royalist group, said the anti-government groups were attempting to overthrow the constitutional monarchy.
A second group, which calls itself the Campaign for People’s Constitution, submitted a letter demanding that the entire 2017 Constitution be amended to take away powers linked to Prayuth and other ex-military leaders in government.
Prime minister speaks out
On Tuesday, the prime minister said he was concerned by the protestors’ demands.
“To protest is their right, but it went too far … was it appropriate,” Prayuth said. “If [they] violated [laws], they must all be prosecuted.”
On Thursday, a day after he led seven new members of his cabinet while they were sworn in before King Maha Vajiralongkorn, Prayuth delivered a speech outlining plans for the country’s future as Thailand grapples with a deep economic crisis caused by ripple effects of the coronavirus outbreak.
The speech did not refer to the protesters directly, but ended with this statement: “The only way forward is to join hands, join hearts, and to work together for the best of our country, and to hold our prosperity and that of our children as our first and most important mission right now.”