Thailand’s history echoed across a royal field today in song, cheers and chants as tens of thousands gathered once again to demand an end to military rule.
What appears to be the largest rally yet demanding the government step down has drawn protesters from throughout the country for a two-day demonstration. And while the past has seen similar scenes of resistance to Thailand’s indelible authoritarianism, the open display of defiance toward the monarchy was unprecedented.
With protesters expected to camp out overnight following a series of speeches from an erected stage, organizers were teasing a “surprise” at 9pm. Whatever that’s an address by a prominent dissident in exile or something more provocative, a larger surprise will come Sunday when organizers reveal their plans. What had been a march on the government’s seat of power is now rumored to be a march on the palace itself, though no plans have been made public yet.
A husband and wife who would only identify themselves as Kitti, 60; and Jitapa, 40; said they are regulars at pro-democracy rallies. Kitti said he was at Thammasat on Oct. 6, 1976, when his generation of student protesters were gunned down, hanged from trees and murdered by the dozens by government-backed right-wing paramilitaries and security forces. He was 19.
“Today I came to support the children’s generation,” he said. “I disagree with this dictatorship government and always have. The constitution must come from the people, and there need to be checks on government officials and transparency. Inequality happens under this current system.”
The rally began in earnest just afternoon when Thammasat University, a historically potent site of past events, relented on barring protesters and opened its gates. By late afternoon however, the growing throng streamed back outside to fill the Sanam Luang, where previous uprisings have taken shape.
The protest is organized by the United Front of Thammasat and Demonstration, which is led by the protest faction which has gone beyond demanding the government step down to call for 10 royal reforms.
The Sanam Luang, a royal field where Thai kings are cremated in great ceremony, was given a new name today by anti-establishment protesters: Sanam Ratsadon, or “The People’s Field.”
Jitapa said she and her husband agreed with the 10 demands for the monarchy, saying they were not seeking to end it.
“None of these demands indicate that they want to overthrow the monarchy, but they just want the institution to be under the law like everybody else and suitable for today’s society,” she said, citing the constitutional monarchies of Spain, Denmark and Britain.
“I think this will protect the institution more than anything, nothing is wrong with these suggestions,” she added.
Posing in front of the Thammasat gate in a motley costume festooned with icons of the rural north including buffalo yokes and sticky rice baskets and loincloths performed a man who asked only to be identified as Petchprakaisang.
The 59-year-old said he came all the way down from Loei province with a group this morning. He said he was a repairman before the previous coup of 2006 that overthrew the government of Thaksin Shinawatra and blamed it for losing the home he’d just finished paying for and land. That led him to join the anti-government Redshirt movement in 2008.
“My outfit represents all Thai people. We are chained from speaking our minds and limited to think in a certain way,” he said, referred to the rope bonds and coconut shell on his head. He said the giant “yokes” on their shoulders represented the burden Thais have to carry.
Indeed, while the student-led movement had turned a new page from nearly two decades of Red and Yellow rivalry, supporters of the Redshirt movement had a greater presence at Saturday’s rally, raising flags to the former fugitive prime minister they long supported and other heroes.
One enormous red flag was raised to commemorate Maj. Gen. Khattiya Sawasdipol, aka Se Dang, a rogue general who led an armed camp during 2010 street demonstrations and was shot in the head by a sniper at their peak.
At the end of the Sanam Luang, between the crowd and the Grand Palace, nearly 100 police officers were lined up along with a barricade of large utility vehicles.
Groups and vendors operated booths along the field, which is a patchwork of grass and concrete, campaigning for various causes, from liberating homebrew craft beer and legalizing gay marriage to increasing access to legal abortion.
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