A night of surprises, as Thai taboos pushed further than ever before

In a year of bold protests in Thailand, this weekend's demonstrations once again caused a stir. A plaque challenging the monarchy was placed and a 10-point reform document delivered to authorities as protestors continued to push boundaries

September 21, 2020
A night of surprises, as Thai taboos pushed further than ever before
An anti-government protester makes the three-fingered Hunger Games salute in front of the police as she poses for a photo while taking part in a pro-democracy rally in Bangkok on September 19. Photo: Mladen Antonov/AFP

On Sunday morning, in the middle of Sanam Luang field in front of the Grand Palace in Bangkok, sat a patch of wet concrete – a gold plaque freshly placed at its centre. 

It was laid at the climax of Thailand’s latest pro-democracy rally on 19 and 20 September, as leaders engaged in the symbolic act of installing the People’s Plaque on the grounds of Dusit Royal Plaza. Organisers stated it was to replace another plaque marking the end of absolute monarchy in the 1930s, which went missing in 2017.

Dated 20 September 2020, it stated in Thai: “The people have expressed the intention that this country belongs to the people, and not the king”.

Not so far from its golden shimmer were coils of barbed wire laid by the police – a stark juxtaposition and physical manifestation of the ongoing tensions between freedom and restraint in Thai political discourse. 

A day earlier, on Saturday 19 September, student protestors at Bangkok’s Thammasat University once again demanded Thailand’s current military-affiliated government dissolve and allow free and fair elections, in a rally that spilled over into Sunday morning. 

After weeks of speculations, protest leaders delayed the announcement of where they’d be marching to, leaving it a “big surprise”, in their words. That location turned out to be right next door to the regal surroundings of Sanam Luang, where protestors were already camped out overnight. 

By 9am on Sunday morning, the overnight rally on the grassy patch of land in front of the Grand Palace, sodden with the passing of heavy rains brought on by Storm Noul, was over. It ended with 22-year-old student leader Panusaya Sithijirawattanakul handing over a letter to the Metropolitan Police Chief detailing 10 points of reform, entrusting the chief to relay the message to the Privy Council. 

In a significant plot twist, they did not continue the rally to the Government House as originally planned, a move that neatly avoided the barbed wire and bulked up police presence that authorities had laid in anticipation. 

With surprises scattered throughout the event, the mass demonstration was a major moment – yet again – in Thailand’s ongoing pro-democracy movement. In these two acts – laying the plaque and handing a letter detailing the 10 point reform to the Privy Council – protest leaders once again pushed the boundaries of Thailand’s restrictive lese majeste laws farther than has been seen for generations. 

The location, where a commemorative plaque was placed by pro-democracy protest leaders, is seen empty after it was removed on Monday. Jonathan Klein/AFP
A commemorative plaque placed by pro-democracy protest leaders on the Sanam Luang pitch is seen in Bangkok. Jack Taylor/AFP

In these two acts – laying the plaque and marching to the Grand Palace – protest leaders once again pushed the boundaries of Thailand’s strict lese majeste laws farther than has been seen for generations

A mere 18 hours before the exchange between Panusaya and the police chief, Sanam Luang was overcast by heavy monsoon clouds as rain drizzled sporadically. 

At first the demonstrators were mainly seasoned Red Shirt supporters – veterans of Thailand’s anti-military street demonstrations in recent years, and a markedly different demographic from the younger demonstrators seen on 16 August at the Democracy Monument. 

The demonstrators were able to break through Thammasat University, earlier announced as off-limits to protestors, at noon, then occupying neighbouring Sanam Luang at 3pm despite police guarding the area. As the sun set, the demographics began to shift as young Thais started flowing in, filling the lawn with more than 100,000 protestors. The protest had the air of a temple festival fair, with vendors and small creative stages of various events and arts. 

One singer-guitarist led a group of clapping protestors in a folksy rock song with the chorus Prayuth ock bai, meaning “Prayuth Get Out”. Meanwhile, on the other side of Thammasat’s gates, a different hard-rock band entertained an older crowd of Red Shirts, supporters of former prime ministers Thaksin and Yingluck Shinawatra, who the military removed by coups in 2006 and 2014 respectively.

While the others spoke, 22-year-old Ford Tattep Ruangprapaikitseree – a prominent leader at earlier protests, who took a backseat on this occasion – signed autographs and spoke with supporters around 4pm. 

Sanam Luang. Photo: Tara Abhasakun

When I spoke about this at the Harry Potter protest, no one dared to clap for me, everyone was scared that day. But when I spoke in Chiang Mai, even the dogs showed their support

Once at the demonstration, protest leaders such as 23-year-old Parit Chiwarak, better known by his nickname Penguin, emphasised there would be “surprises”. 

At midnight, as some protesters camped out on the lawn and others watched the stage through livestreams, key speakers took the spotlight. The speeches of Anon Nampa, Panusaya, Penguin were among the most anticipated, all united by recent arrests for sedition charges and known for their criticism of the royal institution.

Anon, against an LED backdrop studded with exploding fires, got straight to the point, revealing that the Thammasat United Front for Demonstration had planned to place a plaque.

When Thailand shifted from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy in 1932, the People’s Party placed a plaque in the Dusit Royal Plaza to commemorate the event. The plaque stayed on the streets, withstanding the cars that drove on top of it on a daily basis, but then suddenly disappeared in 2017. While it remains unknown who removed it, ultraroyalists had threatened to do so the year before.

The crowd cheered as Anon breezed through casual and jovial statements about the royal institution’s influence on Thai politics, comments that have never been said so openly in public. 

“When I spoke about this at the Harry Potter protest [in August], no one dared to clap for me, everyone was scared that day. But when I spoke in Chiang Mai, even the dogs showed their support,” Anon teased, to the laughter and cheers of the crowd. “Those who are asking for more, also come and visit me at Klong Prem Prison!”

The comment was tongue-in-cheek, but pointed to the rapid evolution of what is considered taboo in Thailand. It also acknowledged that making such a public declaration about the outsized role of the monarchy can very well wind up in prison time, even as this kind of speech is now on full display in the youth protests.

When Panusaya took the stage to talk about the 10-point reform, Twitter was flooded with messages about the mobilisation of public buses by police blocking the demonstration area. Some tweeted references to the Thammasat Massacre in which students were shot before getting dragged into public buses. Perhaps the protests were going too far, the Twitter crowds wondered. It couldn’t end well – political street demonstrations throughout Thai history have often ended in violent clashes after all. But the surprises didn’t end there. 

The plaque was installed at 7am on Sunday with a satirical prayer ceremony, a small but symbolic move. Then demonstrators sang the national anthem at the usual 8am while holding the three-finger protest salute sign, now impossible to miss at Thai political demonstrations. The protest leaders got on the truck, ready to head to the Privy Council’s office – a change in plans from the earlier announcement of targeting the Government House building.

Protestors selling anti-government t-shirts. Photo: Tara Abhasakun

Their path was blocked by lines of police, plastic and concrete barricades, public buses, and even barbed wire at the final destination. The journey seemed to be heading for a stifled anti-climax.

Instead of continuing on, Panusaya left the truck, walked through the crowd of reporters and protestors, and met with the police chief on foot. As members of the media looked on, the two parties announced the message would be passed along to officials. Panusaya said they looked forward to a response, and announced that the rally had ended. It was 9am.

The protest charted its own course, departing from the plan that leaders had spelled out beforehand. The unexpected nature of the events themselves, in conjunction with the increasingly frank and normalised tone of the criticism lodged against the monarchy, made the protest stand out in a summer of already bold and heightened political activity. 

For an event of its size, the weekend action was also set apart for the total absence of any violent clashes that would give opportunities for the police or military to intervene. 

The seasoned Red Shirt protestors were also present. Photo: Tara Abhasakun
Ford Tattep Ruangprapaikitseree signing autographs. Photo: Tara Abhasakun

The protest once again raised the ceiling and showed how the ongoing movement could play out with this new generation of plugged-in Thais – dynamic, crowd-sourced and irreverent of the taboos that bound generations before them. 

By this morning, the new plaque had met the same fate as its predecessor, already having been stolen or removed by officials, with only pot-marked, barely-dried concrete left behind where it had been violently gouged out. 

The now-cliche description of us living in unprecedented times, the world’s catchphrase of 2020, would once again seem to be an accurate description for this current moment in Thailand.

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