Rallying from behind bars in northern Thailand, Anon Numpa urged supporters Friday to keep fighting for democracy — still defiant months after his fiery speeches fuelled a movement calling for reforms to the ultra-powerful monarchy.
Student leaders and activists have kept up relentless protests, demanding the government step down.
But this week tensions ratcheted sharply as activists dared to surround a royal motorcade carrying the queen.
The government issued an emergency decree in response, banning gatherings of more than four people and arresting around two dozen of the most prominent protesters, including human rights lawyer Anon.
He wrote on Facebook he had been forcibly taken by helicopter to Chiang Mai, where his lawyer confirmed he had been refused bail.
In a handwritten message posted online, Anon urged his supporters to “keep on fighting”.
“My freedom is a very small issue compared to the entire struggle for democracy,” he wrote.
“Adhere to the ideology of non-violence and do not be afraid of any obstacles.”
Anon has spent his career defending those charged under Thailand’s draconian royal defamation laws, which can see people jailed for up to 15 years per charge.
But in August the 36-year-old stepped into the limelight by calling for frank discussions on the monarchy at a rally in Bangkok.
His speech sent a lightning bolt through Thailand’s royalist establishment, smashing a long-held taboo.
“I had to come out and be on the frontlines,” Anon told AFP in an interview last month, knowing the decision would make him a prime target.
“It is not right for me — an activist and a lawyer who deals with human rights and is watched by the media — to hide behind the people on the ground.”
– King and country –
Anon was born in 1984 in northeastern Roi Et province, where Bangkok’s military-aligned establishment is widely hated.
His disenchantment with the monarchy grew as he started defending those charged under the draconian lese majeste law, known as “112”.
The law shields the royal family from defamation and can be broadly interpreted to target criticism as well.
“Handling the 112 cases made me realise what the royal institution’s role was… and how it is tied to Thai politics,” Anon told AFP.
Critics also accuse authorities of deploying the law against anti-military activists, stamping out dissent under the guise of defending the royals.
Today’s youth-led movement is demanding the resignation of Premier Prayut Chan-O-Cha, the former military chief who led the 2014 coup and held on to power after last year’s disputed elections.
Prayut has warned Thailand would be “engulfed in flames” if the students push too hard on demands for royal reform.
Anon acknowledged the fight for “structural” change will not be easy.
“The people who surround the royal institution are still trying to hold on to the old power.”
Under Thailand’s system of a constitutional monarchy, King Maha Vajiralongkorn is supposed to stay out of politics.
But his influence permeates every aspect of society, buttressed by the arch-royalist military and kingdom’s billionaire clans.
The ultra-wealthy monarch has made unprecedented changes since ascending the throne in 2016, taking personal control of the palace’s fortune — worth an estimated $60 billion — and moving two army units under his direct command.
– ‘The fight will continue’ –
Protesters are calling for the abolition of the royal defamation law, greater accounting of the palace’s finances and the monarch’s withdrawal from politics.
“If the monarchy is not reformed, this country cannot go on,” Anon shouted to cheering crowds at a rally late Wednesday, just hours before his latest detention.
His previous arrests — for which he was granted bail — failed to silence the lawyer, earning him rock-star status in the movement.
With Thailand’s history of coups and state-sanctioned bloodshed, the fear of a violent crackdown looms.
But the lawyer told AFP the gains made in the past months are worth it.
“What we have done will not be in vain,” he said.
“We can use our wins as a way for the next generation to fight on.”
© Agence France-Presse