BANGKOK – Pro-democracy activists demanded public oversight of Thailand’s king Maha Vajiralongkorn’s immense wealth during a protest on Wednesday outside the headquarters of a major bank in which he is the largest shareholder. The protest amounted to a show of mistrust after police summoned a dozen protest leaders for alleged royal defamation.
Several months after the start of almost daily anti-government rallies, the pro-democracy movement known as Ratsadorn, or “The People”, shows no sign of slowing down, despite the growing risk of clashes with ultra-royalists and a wave of violence. charges under a draconian lese majesté law – which provides for up to 15 years in prison per charge.
Police summoned at least 12 protest leaders from across the country overnight to hear lèse majesté charges – known by its penal code number 112. These are the first such cases to be filed in several years then. that the authorities are preparing to cancel the endemic anti-monarchy graffiti. , banners and speeches that now accompany each event.
Several thousand demonstrators gathered around the headquarters of Siam Commercial Bank, one of Thailand’s largest lenders. The king is named as owning a 23.5% stake worth an estimated $ 2.3 billion based on Wednesday’s share price.
Protesters took to the gardens outside the bank at nightfall, holding up signs saying, “We the people claim our property from the king.” Many wore rubber ducks in their hair or glued to hard hats – the latest symbol of the young mem-maker activists who fought off police water cannons and tear gas earlier in the month with inflatable yellow ducks giants.
“We should be able to look at the king’s finances as they come from taxpayers’ money,” said a 24-year-old protester who identified himself only as “Jim”. “At least rubber ducks protect people, unlike soldiers,” he said.
The army targeted by the demonstrators
The protest movement also wants to permanently withdraw the military from politics in a country that has seen 13 coups in less than 100 years.
The starting point, they say, must be the resignation of former army chief turned prime minister Prayuth Chan-O-Cha and his government, as well as a rewrite of a constitution that offered the army a back door to power through a fully appointed Senate. .
But it is the role of the Thai monarchy that motivates them now, with protesters calling for the king’s wealth and power to be limited by the constitution – as established by a peaceful revolution of 1932 – and for the palace to remain. firmly beyond politics.
Vajiralongkorn is perhaps the richest monarch in the world, with an annual palace budget of around $ 1 billion. He owns majority stakes in banks and construction companies in his own name as well as billions of dollars in prime real estate in Bangkok under the control of the Crown Property Bureau (CBP).
The value of CBP, which was created to manage the palace’s wealth for the good of the kingdom, is estimated to be between $ 30 billion and $ 60 billion. But he doesn’t publish his accounts, and experts say he did turn into a private piggy bank after being transferred in 2018 directly to Vajiralongkorn’s control of the finance ministry.
Initially, the protesters had vowed to crowd around the CBP offices in the historic heart of Bangkok. But a sign of the sensitivity of any attack on the king’s wealth, all roads to the office were blocked before dawn on Wednesday by shipping containers stacked on top of each other and topped with loops of razor wire. Behind them stood thousands of police and military conscripts.
“The aim is not only to stop the protesters today, but also to send them a message to refrain from demonstrating in the future or face the consequences of violent arrests and other harsh actions using the logic of section 112 of the Penal Code, ”said Paul Chambers. , lecturer and special advisor in international affairs at the University of Naresuan.
Widening the gap
Thailand is a divided kingdom. The split is between young and old, rich and poor – it is one of the least egalitarian societies in Asia – and between the voices for reform and the arch-royalist conservatives who support the status quo in the form of army.
As Thai protesters – known locally as “the mob” – settled down for an evening outside the king’s favorite bank, the monarch himself mingled with royalists in a downtown park.
Many royalists regard the palace as untouchable and the monarch beyond reproach due to his position at the head of Thai society.
“These children are being deceived if they think the crown property belongs to the country,” said Warong Dechgitvigrom, leader of the ultra-royalist group Thai Pakdee (Loyal Thai). “They belong only to the king.
Critics accuse the king of leading an opulent life, largely overseas in Germany with a large following, creating an image that has played particularly badly at home with the coronavirus-hit economy set to contract from at least 6% this year.
But the arch-royalists say the king is simply asserting control of the possessions that were the exclusive property of the palace before the revolution of 1932 ended absolute rule.
“I think King Vajiralongkorn recognizes that his property should be returned to its place,” said Nopadol Prompasit, who receives complaints of alleged lese majesty violations and files cases with the police. “He has every right to move money or spend it as he sees fit.”
As the rift widens between pro-democracy protesters and royalists, experts fear an escalation in violence that marred a parliamentary debate on the constitution on November 17.
Dozens were wounded in the fighting, including six from gunfire, marking a dangerous escalation in a country awash with weapons.
Prime Minister Prayuth, in retreat like never before in the six years since taking office as army chief in a 2014 coup, has so far refused to resign and on Wednesday rejected reports that he could consider martial law to control the protests.
“In a democracy (…) I cannot get everyone to agree with me,” he told reporters.
The News Lens has been granted permission to publish this article. Voice of America.
TNL Editor: Bryan Chou (@thenewslensintl)
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