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  HOME | World (Click here for more)

Thai Protesters Turn Focus on King’s Finances

BANGKOK – Thai student protesters planned to gather on Wednesday for a large rally at the Bangkok headquarters of the Siam Commercial Bank, of which the king of Thailand is the largest shareholder, a day after at least one prominent leader was issued a summons to face charges of insulting the monarchy.

Wednesday’s protest will focus on the finances of 68-year-old King Maha Vajiralongkorn, who upon ascending the throne in 2016 took personal control of all Crown Property Bureau assets, estimated at more than $35 billion.

The demonstration was originally planned to begin at Democracy Monument, with a march to the Crown Property Bureau. However, due to security concerns, organizers announced late Tuesday night that the gathering would be moved to the headquarters of the SCB, of which King Vajiralongkorn is the largest shareholder with 23.38 percent of the shares, according to the latest data published by the Thai stock exchange.

Overnight, authorities barricaded roads near the Crown Property Bureau with shipping containers, razor wire and thousands of police officers to protect the building from demonstrators.

Despite protesters being peaceful and unarmed, authorities have recently used water cannons laced with irritants and blue dye, as well as pepper spray and tear gas, against them. Police have also threatened to use rubber bullets.

Last week, at least 55 protesters were injured, mostly due to the effects of tear gas, but also six with gunshot wounds, during a protest outside parliament as lawmakers debated changes to the constitution.

“Resorting to violence, or harsh measures, to try to end the protests will do nothing except further entrench the view that the current government does not represent the views of the people,” ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights board member Mu Sochua said in a statement on Wednesday, and demanded a “conciliatory, rather than combative” approach from the authorities.

“They must also guarantee that those peacefully protesting can do so without fear of being arrested, or of being on the receiving end of violence of any form,” she said.

Large demonstrations, led by student groups, have been taking place almost daily since July and have broken the longstanding taboo in Thai society of scrutinizing the monarchy, protected from criticism with lengthy jail sentences under the harsh lèse-majesté law, or Section 112 of the Criminal Code.

In June, Prime Minister Gen. Prayut Chan-ocha told reporters that the king had instructed the government not to use Section 112 to prosecute civilians. However, last week he announced it was now “necessary for the government and security agencies to intensify their actions by using all laws and all articles to take action against demonstrators.”

Up to 12 protest leaders are now believed to have received summonses for Section 112 in recent days, with Parit “Penguin” Chiwarak tweeting a photo of his on Tuesday.

The human rights Clooney Foundation for Justice said in a statement on Tuesday that “the right to freedom of expression includes the right to criticize public figures, and Thailand’s use of its ‘lèse-majesté’ law – which punishes anyone who ‘defames, insults or threatens’ the royal family – to prosecute protesters for criticizing the monarchy would violate this core liberty.”

“No one should be arrested or imprisoned merely for criticizing public officials or a system of government,” said CFJ co-president and lawyer Amal Clooney. “Thailand should not respond to peaceful protests by cracking down on protesters through prosecutions that muzzle speech.”

King Vajiralongkorn, who ascended the throne in 2016, doesn’t enjoy the reverence of his late father Bhumibol Adulyadej, and his long stays in Germany and opulent lifestyle in Bavaria have drawn criticism during the COVID-19 pandemic, which is crippling the Thai economy.

Since he ascended the throne, the monarch, who has been in Thailand since mid-October, has had the constitution changed so that he would not have to appoint a regent during his long stays in Germany.

He has also taken personal control of key military units in the capital, in addition to the Crown Property Bureau assets.

The students are demanding a new constitution, as the current one was drawn up by the military junta (2014-2019) led by Prayut.

They also call for the resignation of Prayut, who revalidated his position as prime minister last year in controversial elections, and a reduction in the power of the military, which has taken power in 13 coups since the end of the absolute monarchy in 1932.

The boldest demand is the reform of the monarchy to reduce the power of the king, which is creating friction with the more conservative sectors of Thailand, with some ultra-royalists recently clashing with protesters at demonstrations.

 

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