Thai protesters kick off weekend of rallies

BANGKOK: Pro-democracy protesters took to the streets of Bangkok on Saturday as a rally expected to draw tens of thousands of people kicked off calling for PM Prayut Chan-O-Cha to step down and demanding reforms to the monarchy.
The kingdom has seen near-daily gatherings of youth-led groups since mid-July calling for the resignation of Prayut, the former army chief behind the 2014 coup, and a complete overhaul of his administration.
Some are also demanding reforms to Thailand’s ultra-wealthy and powerful monarchy — a once-taboo topic in Thailand due to its tough royal defamation laws.
The burgeoning movement, partly inspired by Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests, remains largely leaderless.
But the weekend’s demonstration is organised by students of Bangkok’s Thammasat University — a group that has been among the most vocal about the royal family’s role in Thailand.
At noon a crowd of hundreds forced open the locked gates of the campus, chanting “Down with dictatorship, long live democracy!” and “Prayut get out!”
“We have to support the students,” Rianchai, 55, said.
“We only want equality.”
Prominent student activist Panusaya Sithijirawattanakul said on Friday reforming the monarchy was at the top of the agenda, asserting that they hoped “to adapt it to our society”.
Wearing ponchos, face masks and carrying umbrellas to shield themselves from rain, demonstrators held up three-finger salutes, made popular by the Hunger Games film trilogy.
Protesters are expected to move on to the historic Sanam Luang field in front of the royal palace, where they plan to spend the night before marching to the Government House on Sunday — a move authorities have warned against.
The show of force is expected to be the largest since the 2014 coup — student activists are hoping for a turnout of more than 50,000.
Some 10,000 uniformed and plainclothes police patrolled the area as the crowd grew, setting up tents selling t-shirts, flags and beer along a main road outside the university.
A cycle of violent protests and coups has long plagued Thailand, with the arch-royalist military stepping in to stage more than a dozen putsches since the end of royal absolutism in 1932.
The latest wave of student-led demonstrations has largely been peaceful.
But unprecedented calls from some protesters for frank discussions about the monarchy have sent shockwaves through the kingdom.
King Maha Vajiralongkorn sits at the apex of Thai power, buttressed by the kingdom’s military and billionaire clans, and commands a fortune estimated to be worth up to $60 billion.
The student demands include greater accounting of the palace’s finances, the abolition of royal defamation laws and a call for the king to remain outside of politics.
They also want a rewrite of the 2017 military-scripted constitution, which they say tilted last year’s election in Prayut’s favour, and for the government to stop “harassing” political opponents.
So far, authorities have arrested more than two dozen activists, charging them with sedition before releasing them on bail.
The weekend demonstrations will prove a test for the pro-democracy movement, analysts say.