Thai king and queen put on a brave face amid mass protests as two activists face life terms


Thailand’s king and queen have put on a brave face while attending a graduation ceremony amid unprecedented anti-monarchy protests in the country.

The royal couple attended the event, where Queen Suthida received an honorary degree, on Thursday, just hours before thousands took to the streets for another night of pro-democracy protests in the capital, Bangkok. 

Protesters were out in force again on Friday, when petition site Change.org was banned in the kingdom over a petition against the king  and as Thai police arrested two activists under a rarely-used law banning violence against the queen.

Ekachai Hongkangwan and Bunkueanun Paothong were among activists who crowded around a royal motorcade carrying Queen Suthida on Wednesday during a large demonstration near the capital’s Government House.  

Thai King Maha Vajiralongkorn and Queen Suthida attend a graduation ceremony at the Sakon Nakhon Rajabhat University in Sakon Nakhon province on Thursday amid mass anti-monarchy protests in the country

At the ceremony, Queen Suthida was presented with an honorary degree just one day after protestors heckled her motorcade in an incident that was stunning to most Thai's because the country's tradition and law demands respect for royalty

At the ceremony, Queen Suthida was presented with an honorary degree just one day after protestors heckled her motorcade in an incident that was stunning to most Thai’s because the country’s tradition and law demands respect for royalty

The royal couple spoke to villagers during their visit to the graduation ceremony, according to Thailand's Royal Household Bureau

The royal couple spoke to villagers during their visit to the graduation ceremony, according to Thailand’s Royal Household Bureau

Protesters are seen at a rally at the Ratchaprasong intersection in central Bangkok on Thursday night. The conservative kingdom has been rocked by months of pro-democracy protests, unprecedented in its history

Protesters are seen at a rally at the Ratchaprasong intersection in central Bangkok on Thursday night. The conservative kingdom has been rocked by months of pro-democracy protests, unprecedented in its history

The kingdom’s political elite has been jolted by a youth-led movement that has demanded the resignation of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-O-Cha and issued a once-taboo call for reforms to Thailand’s powerful monarchy. 

Activist Bunkueanun said during a Friday morning Facebook broadcast that he was surrendering himself to police.

‘I am accused of trying to harm the queen,’ he said. ‘I am innocent. That was not my intention.’

Ekachai told AFP news agency by phone he had also been charged and police later confirmed he was in their custody.

Ekachai is a veteran activist who has been physically attacked several times, in apparent response to his criticism of the military. 

Paothong, a university student also known as Francis Bunkueanum, has been involved in organising the recent protests. 

Pro-democracy activists Bunkueanun 'Francis' Paothong holds up the three-finger salute Thai protesters have adopted from The Hunger Games films before entering the Dusit Police Station on Friday. Paothong will answer charges of harming the queen over a protest near her motorcade on Wednesday

Pro-democracy activists Bunkueanun ‘Francis’ Paothong holds up the three-finger salute Thai protesters have adopted from The Hunger Games films before entering the Dusit Police Station on Friday. Paothong will answer charges of harming the queen over a protest near her motorcade on Wednesday

Dissident Ekachai Hongkangwan holds a replica of a plaque commemorating the year Thailand went from being an absolute monarchy to a democracy in 1932.  Ekachai is a veteran activist who has been physically attacked several times, in apparent response to his criticism of the military

Dissident Ekachai Hongkangwan holds a replica of a plaque commemorating the year Thailand went from being an absolute monarchy to a democracy in 1932.  Ekachai is a veteran activist who has been physically attacked several times, in apparent response to his criticism of the military

Ekachai is escorted by police officers after being arrested on the charge of causing harm to the queen at Lat Phrao police station in Bangkok

Ekachai is escorted by police officers after being arrested on the charge of causing harm to the queen at Lat Phrao police station in Bangkok

Both men could face anywhere from 16 years to life in prison under a law that has not been used for decades and punishes any ‘act of violence against the queen or her liberty’.

It is not clear why the pair were singled out.

The Wednesday incident in which the two were allegedly involved was stunning to most Thais, because by tradition and law, members of the royal family are treated with the utmost respect.

Video that circulated widely on social media showed members of a small crowd heckling a royal motorcade carrying Queen Suthida and Prince Dipangkorn as it slowly passed. 

Security personnel stood between the vehicles and the crowd, but there was no visible violence and none was described by witnesses.

A motorcade containing Queen Suthida (above) and other members of the Thai royal family passed through a road where anti-government protesters had gathered outside the Government House on Wednesday. Two men are now facing life in prison in connection with the event for allegedly harming the queen

A motorcade containing Queen Suthida (above) and other members of the Thai royal family passed through a road where anti-government protesters had gathered outside the Government House on Wednesday. Two men are now facing life in prison in connection with the event for allegedly harming the queen

Security personnel stood between the vehicles and the crowd, but there was no visible violence and none was described by witnesses

Security personnel stood between the vehicles and the crowd, but there was no visible violence and none was described by witnesses

It took place during the third major rally in Bangkok called by the protesters. They began at the city’s Democracy Monument, after which several thousand marched to Government House, where the offices of Prime Minster Prayut are located.

At the same time, King Maha Vajiralongkorn and other members of the royal family were driving to attend a royal religious ceremony at the Grand Palace.

Queen Suthida’s motorcade encountered a small crowd that had gathered at Government House ahead of the main body of protesters.

‘We were not notified by the police of the upcoming royal motorcade in which we had no way of knowing because they were not informing us,’ Paothong told reporters on Friday.

‘Once we knew that there was a motorcade of the queen and the heir presumptive to the throne I tried to break away from the line and use my megaphone to have everyone move away from the police barriers so the motorcade can pass through easily,’ he said.

Large crowds of pro-democracy protesters gathered again in Bangkok on Friday, paying little attention to a decree forbidding mass gatherings

Large crowds of pro-democracy protesters gathered again in Bangkok on Friday, paying little attention to a decree forbidding mass gatherings

Thais have been protesting for months, among their demands are the abolition of a strict royal defamation law - which shields the monarchy from criticism - and for the royal family to stay out of politics

Thais have been protesting for months, among their demands are the abolition of a strict royal defamation law – which shields the monarchy from criticism – and for the royal family to stay out of politics

Thailand's modern political history is dotted with periods of violent civil unrest and more than a dozen military coups, the most recent of which brought the current prime minister to power in 2014. Pictured: Protesters raise a salute while rallying outside police headquarters in Bangkok on Thursday

Thailand’s modern political history is dotted with periods of violent civil unrest and more than a dozen military coups, the most recent of which brought the current prime minister to power in 2014. Pictured: Protesters raise a salute while rallying outside police headquarters in Bangkok on Thursday

Thai Police, seen here during a protest outside their Bangkok headquarters on Thursday, have closed down roads in central Bangkok on Friday after protesters vowed to return to the streets in the evening - a move that would again defy an emergency decree banning gatherings of more than four people

Thai Police, seen here during a protest outside their Bangkok headquarters on Thursday, have closed down roads in central Bangkok on Friday after protesters vowed to return to the streets in the evening – a move that would again defy an emergency decree banning gatherings of more than four people

Friday’s announcement of the charges against the two men is the first time such serious charges have been levelled against pro-democracy activists, many of whom have already been hit with lesser charges, including sedition and breaking coronavirus rules on gatherings.

Their movement’s demands include the abolition of a strict royal defamation law – which shields the monarchy from criticism – and for the royal family to stay out of politics.

They are also calling for new elections and changes to the constitution to make it more democratic. 

Also on Friday, petition site Change.org was banned in the kingdom, the BBC reported, after hosting a petition to have King Maha Vajiralongkorn declared persona non grata in Germany – where he spends most of his time.

The Ministry of Digital Economy and Society said the contents of the petition – which had gained nearly 130,000 signatures before the site was blocked – violated Thailand’s Computer Crime Act.  

Police closed down roads in central Bangkok on Friday after protesters vowed to return to the streets in the evening – a move that would again defy an emergency decree banning gatherings of more than four people.

‘I warn everyone not to violate the law,’ premier Prayut said after holding a special cabinet meeting.

Prayut said on Friday that his government hopes it could drop the state of emergency ahead of its normal 30-day duration ‘if the situation improves quickly.’ 

'I won't quit. What have I done wrong?': Prime Minster Prayut Chan-ocha remained defiant in the face of the protests, while addressing the public on Friday

‘I won’t quit. What have I done wrong?’: Prime Minster Prayut Chan-ocha remained defiant in the face of the protests, while addressing the public on Friday

Some 10,000 people had rallied on Thursday late into the night at the flashpoint junction of Ratchaprasong.

Confronting police, they demanded the release of around two dozen arrested activists, chanting ‘Free our friends!’ and ‘Prayut get out!’.

Many displayed a three-fingered salute adopted from the ‘Hunger Games’ movies as a symbol of the burgeoning movement.

Prayut said he had no intention of stepping down.

‘No, I won’t quit,’ he said. ‘What have I done wrong?’

Among the top activists arrested Thursday was Panusaya ‘Rung’ Sithijirawattanakul, whose detention was live-streamed on Facebook.

Anon Numpa, another leading activist, said he was forcibly taken by helicopter to Chiang Mai in northern Thailand.

His lawyer Krisadang Nutcharut told AFP that Anon had been refused bail and was being held in Chiang Mai prison.

‘Keep on fighting! My freedom is a very small issue compared to the entire struggle for democracy,’ Anon posted on Facebook late Thursday. 

The legal aid group Thai Lawyers for Human Rights said at least 51 people have been arrested since Tuesday in connection with the protests. 

The legal aid group Thai Lawyers for Human Rights said at least 51 people have been arrested since Tuesday in connection with the protests. Pictured: Protesters hold up torches during a mass rally in Bangkok on Thursday night

The legal aid group Thai Lawyers for Human Rights said at least 51 people have been arrested since Tuesday in connection with the protests. Pictured: Protesters hold up torches during a mass rally in Bangkok on Thursday night

Some 10,000 people were thought to have gathered to protest in Bangkok on Thursday in defiance of a government ban on meetings of more than four people and despite the dangers posed by the coronavirus pandemic

Some 10,000 people were thought to have gathered to protest in Bangkok on Thursday in defiance of a government ban on meetings of more than four people and despite the dangers posed by the coronavirus pandemic

Thai police clash with protesters at the mass rally in Bangkok on Thursday night. Both the police and military have been the target of criticism by protesters

Thai police clash with protesters at the mass rally in Bangkok on Thursday night. Both the police and military have been the target of criticism by protesters

Thailand’s modern political history is dotted with periods of violent civil unrest and more than a dozen military coups, the most recent of which brought Prayut to power in 2014.

Bangkok-based analyst Thitinan Pongsudhirak said the protest movement could heighten the chances of Thailand facing yet another military takeover.

‘This endgame for Thailand’s future has been building up for years, and it is finally here and now,’ he said.

 ‘A brutal dispersal of the protest may take place,’ they told AFP. 

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