A lawyer and an activist who have been leading anti-government demonstrations in recent weeks addressed thousands of students protesting at a Bangkok university on Monday – in defiance of a court order banning the two from such activities after they were released from custody at the weekend.
Anon Numpa, an attorney with the advocacy group Thai Lawyers for Human Rights, and his fellow protester, activist Panupong Jadnok, spoke to about 5,000 at Thammasat University about the need for government reform and to lessen the power of the monarchy.
“The reason for me to speak out about the monarchy is because demonstrators should leverage this topic and I speak on behalf of them, respectfully under the framework of laws and with good wishes for the monarchy to be democratic,” Anon told BenarNews before taking the stage.
Speaking to the thousands gathered on the campus Monday night, Anon said the monarchy should stay out of politics.
“Any involvement in politics by the King should be strongly questioned,” he said.
He and Panupong were arrested Friday in Bangkok after the police charged them with sedition; organizing gatherings of 10 or more people to threaten unrest; leading mass gatherings that could spread the coronavirus; and five other offenses. They spent a night in jail before a judge decided to free them without bail while requiring that they not repeat any of the actions that led to charges against them, or they could face a fine of 100,000 baht (U.S. $3,210).
Anon has played a key role in the rallies that began on July 18 and has commented about the power of the monarchy which is shielded by Lese-Majeste, Thailand’s strict law against royal defamation.
“We have democracy with the king as the head of state, but the monarchy has much more power than the system allows,” he told about protesters at a rally in Bangkok last week.
Under the Lese-Majeste law, one count of defaming, insulting or threatening the Thai royal family carries a penalty of three to 15 years in prison. Nearly 100 people have been charged under the law since a 2014 coup led by Prayuth Chan-o-cha, according to iLaw, an online legal advocacy group.
Prayuth, who has since been elected prime minister, said Lese-Majeste had been used less frequently of late at the request of the King himself.
On Monday, some protesters held signs showing a photo of Wanchalearm Satsaksit, a Thai dissident who was kidnapped on June 4 while living in exile in Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, to signify the enforced disappearances of government opponents.
Since he went missing, the Thai and Cambodian governments have denied having any role in the incident, even as some social media posts had linked the Thai palace to his disappearance. Prayuth dismissed reports that the disappearance was tied to alleged Lese-Majeste violations.
Meanwhile other protesters, inspired by “The Hunger Games” movie series, raised three fingers to symbolize their dissent against the government.
“We want to amend the constitution to have equality and a transparent government,” said a Thammasat student who asked to be identified as Cherry so she could maintain her privacy.
The protest came hours after both 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 system.
“We think it’s time for us to come out and protest a group of people who exploit the youths to subvert our nation,” he read in a statement delivered to the lawmakers. “Authorities must prosecute those who insult the 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.
The student protest group announced plans to return on Wednesday, the birthday of the Queen Mother, Queen Sirikit. Her son, King Maha Vajiralongkorn, succeeded his father, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who died in 2016 following a 70-year reign.
History of coups
Since converting from an absolute to a constitutional monarchy in 1932, Thailand has faced more than 20 military coups – the last two in 2014 and 2006 when the military overthrew the democratic government of Yingluck’s brother, Thaksin Shinawatra.
In a Facebook posting last week, Anon said he feared Thailand could revert to an absolute monarchy.
Also last week, the activist lawyer took to the stage dressed as Harry Potter before about 200 protesters to call for the monarchy’s power to be curtailed.
Prayuth responded by urging the protesters “not to incite turmoil and make things worse at this time.”
On Monday, Puttipong Punnagun, the Thai minister for digital economy and society, said he had received “several thousand public complaints” over the past seven days about posts defaming the royals on social media platforms such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter.
“If they don’t break the law and do not insult on the institution, I simply monitor them,” Puttipong told reporters at Government House. “But if they violate (the monarchy), we will sue them.”