By Lobsang DS Subirana
Bangkok, Nov 25 (efe-epa).- A prominent Thai pro-democracy activist said Wednesday during a protest that the country’s monarchy is looking to restore its popularity by appearing more approachable to the people.
Panusaya “Rung” Sithijirawattanakul made the remarks during an anti-government protest in Bangkok at the headquarters of Siam Commercial Bank, of which Thai King Vajiralongkorn is the biggest shareholder.
“Now we can see that now the monarchy are so willing to get their popularity back by working through the people [taking] selfies with them or shaking hands with them. We’ve never seen that before. It looks like they are desperate to have their popularity,” she said.
The activist added that the drop in appeal is allowing reformists to speak openly about the royal institution, guarded from criticism by one of the world’s most draconian lese-majeste laws, punishing insults to the crown with up to 15 years in prison.
Mass protests, led by student groups, have taken place almost daily since July and have broken the longstanding taboo in Thai society of criticizing the crown.
“They have said before that they will not use [Article] 112 to punish people that say anything about the monarchy. But now they are using it again and now we have 12 people that have this charge,” she said referring to the clause in the constitution that protects the institution.
Panusaya, who said she is waiting for a summons along with the other 11, added that its usage will likely continue to increase as protests continue to grow, despite King Rama X allegedly having ordered earlier this year that it not be enforced. The activist said she was unsure whether it was the government or the king that had insisted on the law being reapplied.
Wednesday’s protest location was changed overnight to the bank’s headquarters following fears of potential confrontations with pro-monarchy factions, as seen Nov. 17 during the last rally, when police used water cannons, tear gas and chemicals to disperse crowds. Six people sustained gunshot wounds from unknown aggressors. At least 55 people were injured in total.
“We are trying our best to not go violent. We have our guards and people protecting us,” Panusaya said, adding that she felt safe but rallies were becoming more dangerous. She said the marches could not resort to force, lest the government think it would give them the right to stage another coup.
Access to the Crown Property Bureau building, where the protest was initially scheduled to take place, was blocked Wednesday morning with stacks of shipping containers despite the demonstration having been moved.
At the bank’s headquarters, the peaceful gathering attracted stalls selling anti-government merchandise as guards overlooked people through binoculars from the top of buildings. Some stalls displayed fake money intending to represent the Thai baht with a symbolic value of 10, having swapped the image of the king for rubber ducks wearing crowns.
Also wearing duck costumes were most protest leaders who stood on a makeshift stage, a symbol of resistance adopted when demonstrators took thousands of rubber ducks to taunt police’s usage of water cannons on crowds during last week’s rally.
Others conducted a mock funeral of Prime Minister Gen. Prayut Chan-ocha, whose resignation is one of the three key points demanded by pro-democracy protesters. Prayut led the coup that toppled the previous democratically elected government, and led a dictatorship until he was re-elected in 2019 polls deemed free but not fair.
The other two demands are that of constitutional reform and monarchical reform
King Vajiralongkorn, who ascended the throne in 2016, doesn’t enjoy the reverence of his late father King Bhumibol, and his long stays in Germany and opulent lifestyle in Bavaria have drawn criticism during the COVID-19 pandemic, which is crippling the Thai economy.
Since he ascended the throne, the monarch, who has been in Thailand since mid-October, has had the constitution changed so that he would not have to appoint a regent during his long stays in Germany.
He has also taken personal control of key military units in the capital, in addition to the Crown Property Bureau assets. EFE-EPA