Thai pro-democracy protesters return to streets calling for royal reforms

·2-min read

Thai pro-democracy protesters scaled a massive Bangkok monument Saturday, draping it in a crimson cloth and calling for the kingdom to abolish its draconian royal defamation laws.

Momentum for the youth-led movement calling for an overhaul to Premier Prayut Chan-O-Cha's government has slowed in recent months, due to a fresh wave of coronavirus infections in Thailand.

But the recent detention of four prominent leaders has spurred protesters into action, bringing hundreds back to the Democracy Monument intersection in Bangkok's historic quarter -- under the close watch of scores of riot police.

The leaders were charged under the lese majeste law, which carries penalties of up to 15 years per charge if found guilty of insulting the monarchy.

"I want to stress the purpose of today's rally is to call for 112 to be abolished," said Panupong "Mike" Jadnok, referring to the law by its penal code section.

After rearranging flower pots around the monument to say "112", activists draped a massive red cloth over Democracy Monument in an act of defiance.

As night fell, the protesters marched to the Royal Palace but were stopped by barricades and barbed wire surrounding the area and scores of police in full riot gear.

Officers stood in a tense stand-off against the protesters, some of whom were wielding white shields, gas masks and helmets.

After some negotiations, authorities escorted four protest leaders to the Bangkok City Pillar Shrine, next to the Grand Palace, where they performed a Buddhist water blessing ceremony and called: "Down with feudalism, long live the people."

"We've asked the spirit protecting the shrine to side with the people," rally leader Attapon Buapat told waiting demonstrators, declaring a return to the streets in a week if their comrades are not released.

"If our demands are not met, we will raise the temperatures."

While most of the protesters left after Attapon's announcement, more than a dozen remained.

They threw water bottles and small homemade "ping pong" bombs -- around the size of a table tennis ball -- at the police, who braced against the onslaught until all had dispersed by around 9 pm.

The pro-democracy movement, which kicked off last July, is calling for reforms to the unassailable monarchy, and the abolition of the royal defamation law is one of its key demands.

Their grievances with the royals have electrified Thai society, where frank discussion about the family is taboo.

At its peak, the rallies drew tens of thousands, with demonstrators drawing inspiration from Hong Kong's pro-democracy movement.

In November, police deployed tear gas and water cannon against protesters, using liquid laced with an irritant, and clashes left more than 40 people injured.