BANGKOK (AP) – Pro-democracy protesters in Thailand were confronted by riot police and sprayed with water cannons on Sunday as they tried to approach Bangkok’s Grand Palace to deliver letters about their political grievances addressed to the king of the country.
The pro-democracy movement has launched a bold challenge to reform the country’s monarchy with almost daily protests. Sunday marked the second time water cannons have been used against protesters during several months of protests.
The melee was brief and police later allowed protesters to place four fake red letterboxes near the palace walls in which protesters could place their letters. People then returned home, ending the protest.
Police had gone wild with their water cannons when protesters pushed aside one of the many buses serving as a barrier to walkers trying to approach the palace, which houses the royal offices but is only used by the king Maha Vajiralongkorn on rare ceremonial occasions. The attempt to break through came after police declared their march illegal and asked protesters to send representatives to speak.
Protesters had met earlier at the Bangkok Democracy Monument and marched as darkness fell, pushing back a thin front line of police. Protesters threw objects at the police during the melee, but both sides retreated after a few minutes and it appeared that no one suffered serious injuries.
“People just wanted to submit the letters. There was no sign of violence from the protesters, “protester Thawatchai Tongsuk, 36, said.” If the police gave in, I believe the leaders would have submitted the letters and then finished. Everyone would go home.
“The more violence they use, the more people will join the protest,” Thawatchai said.
The protesters had solicited letters to the King from supporters of the protest that the protesters said they intended to deliver, though the action was clearly symbolic, as the ultimate disposition of the missives was unclear. It was the latest gadget of the protest movement to maintain public interest in their cause.
The student-led movement, which for several months has seized the political initiative, has put enough pressure on the government of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha to ask parliament to address at least some of its demands.
They are calling for Prayuth’s resignation, changes to the constitution to make it more democratic, and reforms to the monarchy to make it more accountable.
Protesters believe Prayuth lacks legitimacy because he came to power after an election last year whose rules were laid down under military rule. Prayuth as army chief in 2014 led a coup ousting an elected government and then ruled the junta that ruled the country until elections last year.
A new constitution has been put into effect by the junta which protesters also consider illegitimate and undemocratic.
The third demand, calling for reform of the monarchy, is the most controversial. The monarchy has always been an untouchable institution, considered by most Thais to be the heart and soul of the nation. A lese majesté law imposes a prison sentence of up to 15 years for anyone who defames the king or his close family.
Until the protesters raised the issue, public criticism of the royal institution was virtually unheard of.
As protesters increasingly brought the issue of the monarchy to the fore, they were seriously pushed back. Even the main opposition party, otherwise favorable to their other points, said it did not want to change the laws covering the monarchy, and the royalists started staging counter-protests. A few dozen people gathered briefly on Sunday in front of the main demonstration.
Parliament has agreed to debate the constitutional amendment and political leaders are discussing the establishment of a reconciliation committee, an effort that has so far been rejected by protesters.
But Prayuth insisted he would not resign, and any effort to reform the monarchy appears to be a stalemate, leaving the situation at an impasse.