Tens of thousands of people gathered in Thailand’s capital city to protest the monarchy, with protesters laying down a “People’s Plaque” in direct defiance of the king.
The total number of protesters varies depending on reports, with authorities saying 18,000 joined Saturday’s demonstration while the protesters claimed that the number was possibly as high as 50,000, Reuters reported.
Criticism of the monarchy carries a punishment of a long prison sentence, which makes the defiance of a “People’s Plaque” all the more daring. The plaque was installed near Bangkok’s Grand Palace as a direct challenge to King Maha Vajralongkorn.
Pro-democracy student leaders hold a plaque declaring "This country belongs to the people" at the Sanam Luang field during a protest in Bangkok, Thailand, Sunday, Sept. 20, 2020. Thousands of demonstrators turned out Saturday for a rally to support the student-led protest movement’s demands for new elections and reform of the monarchy. (AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit)
The plaque bears the words “the country belongs to the people, not the monarchy, echoing the words of leaders from the 1932 upheaval that ended the absolute monarchy.
"I hope the people in power will see the importance of the people," student leader Panupong "Mike" Jadnok, told the crowd, according to Reuters. "We're fighting to put the monarchy in the right place, not to abolish it."
Protesters chanted anti-monarchical demands, such as “Down with feudalism, long live the people.” The protesters also demand that Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha resign, with plans to march on the offices of the prime minister on Sunday.
“The people are humans, not dust under your royal feet,” student leader Panusaya Sithijirawattanakul told the protest early on Sunday. “The people want a king who protects democracy, not one who betrays the people’s democracy.”
Pro-democracy protesters gather at the Sanam Luang field during a protest in Bangkok, Thailand, Sunday, Sept. 20, 2020. Thousands of demonstrators turned out Saturday for a rally to support the student-led protest movement’s demands for new elections and reform of the monarchy. (AP Photo/Wason Wanichakorn)
The crowd also demanded cuts to the royal budget and changes to the constitution that would significantly curb the king’s power. Protesters criticized the king's absence from his country, having stayed in Europe for much of the time since he inherited the throne from his late father in 2016.
“Unless the monarchy is under the constitution, we will never achieve true democracy,” protest leader and human rights lawyer Arnon Nampa told the gathered crowd.
Pro-democracy protesters raise a three-fingers, symbol of resistance salute during a rally at Sanam Luang in Bangkok, Thailand, Sunday, Sept. 20, 2020. Thousands of demonstrators who occupied a historic field in Thailand’s capital overnight continued with their rally on Sunday to support the demands of a student-led protest movement for new elections and reform of the monarchy. (AP Photo/Gemunu Amarasinghe)
The prime minister took power in 2014 during an election that some have called a “coup” and won a disputed election last year, the BBC reported.
Despite his contentious rise to power, the protesters care far more about the king’s limits than the prime minister’s. Panusaya Sithijirawattanakul, who delivered the protesters' manifesto, has said the intention "is not to destroy the monarchy but to modernize it, to adapt it to our society."
But she and her fellow activists have been accused of "chung chart" — a Thai term meaning "hatred of the nation" — and they say they are deeply fearful of the consequences of doing "the right thing" by speaking out.
The Royal Palace was not available for comment on the protest and the demands for reform, according to Reuters.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.