Thailand’s Siam Commercial Bank (SCB) became the focus of protesters’ anger on Wednesday after authorities blocked access to the Crown Property Bureau using barbed wire and shipping containers.
Thousands called on King Maha Vajiralongkorn, who spends a lot of time in Germany, to give up his royal fortune, including his 23% stake in the SCB.
Estimated at $2.3 billion (€1.94 billion), it is part of a royal family fortune reckoned at $30 billion, although total holdings are not publicly known.
Activist Anon Nampa said demonstrators wanted to “reclaim these assets to belong to the people again under the name of the monarchy, the state and the country.”
Read more: Thailand’s king can be expelled if he rules from Germany: parliament
After ascending the throne after his father’s death in 2016, the king transferred royal assets traditionally managed by the Crown Property Bureau to his personal control.
“The people demand back national assets from the king,” read one banner carried by demonstrators, put by police at 8,000.
“Millions of families are struggling so how can we give our taxpayers’ money to just one family to spend luxuriously,” said Parit Chiwarak, another protest leader.
Rubber ducks have emerged as the new symbol of the pro-democracy movement. The large inflatable toys were initially used to mock authorities who sealed off the parliament building, which is situated on a river bank in the capital, Bangkok. When water cannons pummeled the peaceful crowds, protesters used the ducks as improvised shields.
The three-finger salute from the dystopian film series “The Hunger Games” has become a common sight at protests. The gesture of resistance first emerged in 2014 as a form of silent defiance against the military regime led by Prayuth Chan-ocha, who seized power in a coup. Pop culture references have helped demonstrators attract attention from both domestic and international communities.
During a rally, a group of activists, known as the “Bad Students,” dubbed the government “dinosaurs” for their outdated mindset. The activists said they see themselves as “meteorites” that push government officials into extinction if they refuse to change. The “Bad Students” are also demanding an overhaul of Thailand’s lackluster education system.
Until recently, the monarchy was considered a taboo topic. Thailand’s lese majeste laws makes “disrespect” against the monarchy a crime. Protesters staged a Harry Potter-themed rally in August to break the taboo. In J.K. Rowling’s magical world, the powerful Lord Voldemort is referred to as “You Know Who” or “He Who Must Not Be Named.” The protest was a clear jab at King Maha Vajiralongkorn.
Monarchical reform is by far the most contentious of the movement’s demands. In November, demonstrators marched to the royal palace to deliver handwritten letters to the king. When asked what he thought about the protesters, King Maha Vajiralongkorn simply said: “We love them all the same” and described Thailand as a land of compromise.
Many demonstrators are frustrated at the disproportionate use of force and are marching peacefully to demand justice and an end to violence. So far, six people have suffered gunshot wounds and more than 50 people have been seriously injured. After a violent clash between anti-government protesters, protesters marched to the police headquarters the following day to tag the building with paint.
The pro-democracy movement has drawn protesters from a wide-range of interest groups. The movement has also come to embody Thailand’s diversity, with thousands of people joining in protests to push for gender equality and LGBT+ rights.
Protesters change rally venues at short notice as a popular tactic to confuse police. Authorities on Wednesday stacked shipping containers and set up razor wires in central Bangkok to cordon off the Crown Property Bureau from protesters. But protesters announced a last-minute shift to the Siam Commercial Bank’s headquarters. The king is the largest shareholder of the bank.
Speakers at Wednesday’s rally also denounced the practice of Thai authorities of applying laws against defaming the monarchy, so called “lese-majeste” offenses, carrying a potential penalty of up to 15 years in prison.
Read more: Thailand pro-democracy protesters resilient amid violent crackdown
On Tuesday, 12 protest leaders faced court summons under the law. The use of the controverisl law was defended by government spokeswoman Rachada Dhnadirek, despite a recent claim by Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha that the king had asked for restraint.
In another part of Bangkok, at least 600 supporters of the monarchy gathered for a scheduled appearance of the king, who with his wife, Suthida, had done street tours in the past months to shore up support.
Last week, outside parliament a protest rally turned violent as police fired water cannon and tear gas. At least 55 people were hurt.
ipj/jlw (dpa, Reuters, AP)