BANGKOK – Pro-democracy demonstrators in Thailand, undeterred by arrest warrants and the possibility of violent attacks, held another rally on Friday, poking fun at their critics and warning of the possibility of a military coup.
The potential for violence was illustrated after their last rally on Wednesday, when two men were reportedly shot and critically wounded. Although the incident remains murky and its connection to the rally unclear, it was a reminder that the student protesters are vulnerable, especially because of the passions they inspire among some of their opponents.
The protest movement’s core demands are for Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha and his government to step down, the constitution to be amended to be more democratic, and the monarchy reformed to make it more accountable.
Their issue concerning the monarchy is the most controversial because the royal institution by law and tradition is virtually untouchable, and regarded by many as the bedrock of national identity. The military has declared defense of the monarchy to be among its foremost duties.
The protest leaders believe that King Maha Vajiralongkorn holds more power than is appropriate under a constitutional monarchy, and have made that the centerpiece of their campaigning in recent weeks. Although any criticism of the monarchy used to be taboo, speeches at the rallies — as well as signs and chants __ include caustic words about the king and the palace.
In response, Thai authorities this past week escalated their legal battle against protest leaders, charging 12 of them with violating a harsh law against defaming the monarchy. The lese majeste law carries a penalty of three to 15 years' imprisonment, but has not been used for the past three years.
Historically, defending the monarchy has been abused for political reasons. It has also triggered violence, most notably in 1976, when it led to the killings of dozens of students at a university protest against the return from exile of an ousted military dictator. That event was the trigger for a coup, and since then Thailand has had successful coups in 1977, 1991, 2006 and 2014.
There is concern that if the government feels it cannot control the protests, which show little sign of abating, it may impose martial law or be ousted by the army in a coup.