The rallies began on Saturday in the capital Bangkok, building on a protest movement that has been gaining momentum since July. Student leader and activist Panasaya “Rung” Sitthijirawattanakul, 21, took to a public stage late Saturday to directly address Thailand’s King Vajiralongkorn — an act that, under strict national laws, could be punishable by 15 years in jail if her comments are considered defamatory to the monarchy.
Panasaya listed to the crowd ten demands by the United Front of Thammasat and Demonstration, a student union group of which she is the spokesperson. The demands include revoking laws against defaming the monarchy, allowing for freedom of expression, abolishing royal offices, disbanding the king’s royal guards.
In a separate interview with CNN, Panasaya said: “I mean no harm to the monarchy.” But she also shared a message to the king: “You should reform it so that the monarchy can continue to exist in Thailand … If you pay attention to what I am saying, I’d like you to consider our demands. It’s up to you. I suggest you’d better do it.”
After a sit-in at the university on Saturday night, on Sunday a group from the rally intended to deliver their demands to the Privy Council, the King’s advisers.
However, Panasaya and other marchers were stopped by police as they attempted to approach the council, and in an exchange that was broadcast live on television.
Panasaya instead agreed to hand the protesters’ demands for a new constitution, monarchy reforms, and the ouster of the military junta to the police, and declared a victory for protesters.
Government spokesman, Anucha Burapachaisri, told CNN: “I am glad it is over in a peaceful manner. As we have put the safety of protesters as our priority. And that has been carried very well by our officers.”
Asked about the submission of a reform letter to the king, he said: “I am aware of their demands about monarchy reform from listening to their speeches on the stage but I don’t have them in detail yet. I would need time to gather info before we have further comments on this.”
Weekend protests escalate
On Saturday afternoon, protest leaders pushed Thammasat University’s gates open and began to gather in the rain there and at Sanam Luang — a public square near the king’s official residence at the Grand Palace.
The ongoing movement began with students in towns across the country — but have since attracted a large cross-section of society. Protesters are calling for the resignation of the Prime Minister; a rewriting of the constitution, which was drafted by the military; and for authorities to stop intimidating activists.
An increasingly central part of protesters’ demands, however, is reform of the much-revered monarchy.
It’s a radical idea in Thailand, where the powerful royal institution is regarded by many with deity-like reverence. The country has some of the strictest lese majeste laws in the world and defaming the king, queen, heir-apparent or regent can mean a 15-year jail sentence.