BANGKOK – Thailand’s indefatigable pro-democracy activists took to Bangkok's streets again Sunday, this time to protest the army as they push forward with their campaign for sweeping reforms, including to the nation's monarchy.
Around 800 protesters marched to the base of the 11th Infantry Regiment, which is closely associated with the country’s royal palace. Their number grew to well over 1,000 as they settled in for speeches by protest leaders.
An advance group of protesters had already pulled away two decrepit buses that had been used to block the entrance to the base and removed strands of razor wire. A large contingent of riot police, several rows deep, stood their ground in front of the gate but no violence was reported by the end of the rally.
The protesters believe that the army undermines democracy in Thailand, and that King Maha Vajiralongkorn wields too much power and influence in what is supposed to be a democratic constitutional monarchy.
The student-led protesters for months now have been demanding reforms to make the monarchy more accountable, even though criticism of the institution has long been considered taboo and comments judged defamatory of the king and key royals are punishable by up to 15 years in prison.
“People should be able to criticize the king. People should be able to inspect what he does. In this way, people will respect and love him more,” said activist Somyot Pruksakasemsuk, who served seven years in prison for defaming the monarchy and is facing criminal charges in connection with this year’s protests.
The protesters also want Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha and his government to step down and the constitution to be amended to make it more democratic.
As the army chief in 2014, Prayuth led a coup ousting an elected government. His military junta oversaw the rewriting of the constitution, which shifted power from elected politicians to unelected bodies, and he was returned to power after elections held under the new rules last year.
Prayuth faces a legal challenge on Wednesday, when the Constitutional Court is to rule on whether he illegally stayed in army housing after he retired from the military at the end of September 2014. If found guilty, he could be forced out of the prime minister's post. Protest leader Parit “Penguin” Chiwarak urged the crowd to rally outside the court on the day of the verdict.
The site of Sunday's protest was symbolic for several reasons.
Last year, the 11th Infantry Regiment was shifted from the army’s chain of command and made part of the Royal Security Command, answerable directly to the king. The action was one of several denounced by protesters as an example of the palace taking powers that should not be allowed under constitutional rule.
Although it was a bloodless army revolt in 1932 that ended the absolute monarchy and installed constitutional rule, the military and the palace have been closely allied for decades. By promoting and defending the royal institution, the army lays claim to being the protector of the nation, while the palace can count on the army to put down any threats to its position of privilege.
There have been 20 military coups since 1932, the most recent ones in 2006 and 2014. Because it is based in Bangkok, the 11th Infantry Regiment has been a key player in coups, or opposing them, according to the prevailing political climate.
While most coups are bloodless, the army has not hesitated to use force to crush threats to the established order.
In 2010, more than 90 people were killed and almost 2,000 injured during nine weeks of protests that saw part of central Bangkok occupied by protesters who were eventually cleared out by the army. Prayuth, then a senior army general, was involved in the crackdown.
In announcing plans for Sunday’s protest, a group from Bangkok’s Thammasat University explained on Twitter that the regiment was targeted “because this unit suppressed people in 2010 and it was the main force for the previous coups.”
Near the end of the rally, protesters threw red paint in the direction of the army base — some splattering on shields held by the police — to symbolize the 2010 bloodshed.
Associated Press journalist Chalida Ekvitthayavechnukul contributed to this report.