Mass protests in Thailand demanding the removal of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, a former military ruler, have grown fiercer over the weekend despite days ago the government banning all political gatherings of five or more people. Thursday’s anti-gathering order is part of a crackdown against the unrest and anger that’s been on for months.
The protests have also increasingly been aimed Thailand’s King Maha Vajiralongkorn, officially known as King Rama X, widely considered to the most wealthy monarch in the world, with estimates putting his fortune starting at $30 billion up to $43 billion.
It’s highly risky to direct public criticism at the king, something rare in the country’s politics, given harsh majeste laws on the books which can result in 15 years in prison for “insulting” the monarchy.
The Thai government declared a state of emergency starting Thursday after tens of thousands brought central Bangkok to a standstill this week, which included an incident where a royal motorcade seeking to pass was obstructed. Beyond the removal of the prime minister, protesters are demanding major reforms to the monarchy and a new constitution.
The anti-protest emergency measure is fueling the anger and intensity of the demonstrations, and has increasingly brought rare run-ins with members of the royal family:
But the royal limousine’s route on Wednesday was the first time that members of the nuclear royal family had gotten such a close look at the faces of Thais who are openly questioning the monarchy’s exalted position in the country. Thailand’s King Maha Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun and some of his immediate family — the queen, who is his fourth wife, and his youngest son, the heir apparent — live most of the year in Germany.
By Thursday morning, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha of Thailand, a retired general, had ordered riot police to clear the protesters from their rally site near his offices at Government House, where they had camped out overnight calling for his removal.
Prayuth’s government came to power in 2014 by military coup and earlier this year banned a popular opposition party, sparking the initial protest movement. Though technically ‘military rule’ recently came to an end, it’s widely perceived that a military dictatorship lives on through Prayuth’s control of the country.
As for the king, there’s growing resentment that he actually governs the country for much of the time from German soil.
Also in the mix, fueling some of the inter-protest violence, are royalists who see the protests as unpatriotic and as disrespectful to Thailand’s centuries old traditions surrounding the monarchy.
Clashes with police are expected to continue through the weekend given the emergency law enraged the public further as it banned any news or online content that “could create fear or intentionally distort information” by harming the country’s reputation or hindering peace and order.
This includes content on social media or blogs – a harsh response akin to the situation that developed last year amid Hong Kong unrest leading to China’s controversial national security law.