Thailand democracy demonstrations: The protesters who risk 15 years in jail for laying a plaque

They promised a dawn surprise, and in Bangkok, anti-government protesters ushered it in to the chorus of a pneumatic drill.

Below the skirt of a tent, we watched them chip away at a square of concrete in front of the country’s Grand Palace.

Into it they laid a plaque which declared that Thailand belongs to the people.

It’s the latest challenge to the monarchy by a series of pro-democracy demonstrations which have been happening almost daily since July.

Many of Sunday’s crowd have been there all night, after attending a massive demonstration on Saturday which the organisers claim attracted 200,000 supporters.

“Down with feudalism, long live the people,” the protesters chanted, before lining up to buy their own miniature metal versions of the plaque, which sold out in minutes.

The plaque resembles one commemorating the end of absolute monarchy in 1932.

In 2017, after King Maha Vajiralongkorn took the throne, it mysteriously disappeared from outside one of the royal palaces.

It was replaced by one bearing a pro-monarchist slogan.

Until recently, open criticism of the monarchy was unheard of in Thailand, which has strict defamation laws concerning the royal family.

Anyone found guilty of breaching them could face up to 15 years in jail.

But some of the movement’s leaders have been breaking this taboo.

As well as reform of the monarchy, they want new elections, a new constitution and the prime minister to step down.

Today, they went further, leading the crowd to present a petition of their demands, addressed to the king.

As the convoy snaked its way towards the Grand Palace, it was stopped by a line of unarmed police.

People had been warned to avoid clashes and as officers and protesters faced off at the barriers, student activist Panusaya “Rung” Sithijirawattanakul made her way through the masses to give their letter to Bangkok’s police chief.

They hope it will be passed on to the king who is currently abroad.

“We have now proved that even an ordinary citizen can communicate with the king, with the monarch, directly,” student leader Parit ‘Penguin’ Chiwarak told me.

If their demands go unanswered, they have said they’ll escalate their movement.

The Royal Palace was not immediately available for comment.

Government spokesperson Anucha Burapachaisri told me, ahead of the weekend’s gatherings: “We encourage people to come forward if they have any issues at the moment to discuss. But we will try to avoid any kind of confrontation and we will try to facilitate in terms of discussion in a constructive way.”

Demonstrators say they will gather again on Thursday.

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