BANGKOK – Pro-democracy demonstrators in Thailand took to the streets of the capital again on Wednesday as the government escalated its legal battle against them, reviving the use of a harsh law against defaming the monarchy.
Their rally was peaceful, but less than two hours after it was declared over and many in the crowd were lingering, a man was shot and wounded, according to initial reports of emergency service personnel and witnesses' accounts and photos posted on social media.
Although it wasn't clear whether the attack involved a personal dispute or politics, it was a reminder that the threat of violence is attached to the passions involved in the protests.
On Tuesday, police issued summonses for 12 protest leaders to answer charges of lese majeste, or defaming or insulting key members of the royal family. The offense is punishable by up to 15 years in prison per incident. Most of the protest leaders are already facing various other charges ranging from blocking traffic to sedition.
The lese majeste law is controversial because anyone — not just royals or authorities — can lodge a complaint, and it has been used in the past as a weapon in political vendettas. But it has not been employed for the past three years after King Maha Vajiralongkorn informed the government that he did not wish to see its use. The king has not publicly commented on the law since then.
The protesters want the monarchy reformed to make it more accountable. They also want Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha and his government to step down and for the military-implemented constitution to be amended to make it more democratic.
Several of the leaders wanted by the police were present Wednesday as protesters gathered in a carnival-like atmosphere next to the headquarters of a bank controlled by the country’s royal family. About 3,000 had joined by the time the rally was declared over shortly after 9 p.m., with the crowd singing and dancing.
Many in the monthslong protest movement, spearheaded by students, believe the monarchy holds too much power for a constitutional monarchy. Their challenge is fiercely opposed by royalists, including many in the army, who consider the royal institution an untouchable bedrock of national identity.
Food and souvenir vendors set up tables on a long stretch of sidewalk along the rim of a park-like compound occupied by the Siam Commercial Bank. Items featuring the image of a yellow rubber duck, a movement icon, could be seen almost everywhere. One protest leader gave a fiery speech from a truck-bed stage while wearing a duck costume.
The ducks became a symbol of resistance last week when human-size inflatable ducks were brought to a rally outside Parliament and satirically dubbed the protesters’ navy. When police turned water cannons on them, the ducks served as makeshift shields.
At a ceremony at a park in another part of Bangkok, at least 600-700 supporters of the monarchy gathered for an appearance by the king, dressed in a white formal uniform. He and Queen Suthida took part in a wreath-laying ceremony to commemorate the 1925 death of King Vajiravudh, whose statue is in front of Lumphini Park. In the past month, the royal couple have been making similar appearances where members of the public can see them face to face, an evident attempt to shore up support for the royal institution.
The site of Wednesday’s pro-democracy rally was changed late Tuesday night by the protesters. It was earlier announced that it would be held outside the offices of the Crown Property Bureau, which manages the fortune controlled by the king, estimated to be worth more than $40 billion.
The target was switched to the Siam Commercial Bank, a publicly held company in which the king is the biggest shareholder. The bank’s headquarters are in a different area of Bangkok, far from the district hosting the Crown Property Bureau and other royal and government offices.
The protest movement announced that the change of venue was to avoid a confrontation with police and royalist counter demonstrators, which it feared could trigger a declaration of martial law or a coup by the military.
Barbed wire had already been installed around the Crown Property Bureau offices and the government had declared a no-go zone of 150 meters (500 feet) around the property. Massive shipping containers were deployed by cranes to block off streets.
A protest rally outside Parliament last week turned chaotic as police fired water cannons and tear gas at the protesters. At least 55 people were hurt, including six reported to have had gunshot wounds. Police denied firing live rounds or rubber bullets.
The next day, several thousand demonstrators gathered outside the national headquarters of the police in central Bangkok to protest the force used against them. That rally was nonviolent but fueled royalist outrage at the protest movement as demonstrators defaced the “Royal Thai Police” sign outside its headquarters and scrawled graffiti and chanted slogans that could be considered derogatory of King Vajiralongkorn.
Protest leaders remained defiant even after being told they were facing lese majeste charges. They declared they would have four more days of rallies to pressure the government.
One of them, Parit “Penguin” Chiwarak, posted his response to his summons on Twitter, saying: “I am not afraid anymore. The ceiling (of our demands) is destroyed. Nobody can stop us now.”
A statement issued Wednesday by Free Youth, the driving force in the coalition of protest groups, called Thailand a failed state whose people “are ruled by capitalists, military and feudalists.”
“And under this state, the ruling class oppress the people who are the true founders and heirs of this country,” said the statement, the most strident issued so far in the name of the group.