Thailand's newly crowned King Maha Vajiralongkorn takes part in a procession near the Grand Palace in Bangkok, Thailand, May 5 2019. Picture: REUTERS/JORGE SILVA
Thailand's newly crowned King Maha Vajiralongkorn takes part in a procession near the Grand Palace in Bangkok, Thailand, May 5 2019. Picture: REUTERS/JORGE SILVA

Bangkok — Thais on Wednesday marked the anniversary of a 1932 revolution which ended absolute monarchy with heavily symbolic events, demanding reforms to a political system dominated by the arch-royalist army.

Protesters dressed as soldiers and a predawn holographic display were among the subversive ways activists chose to commemorate Thailand’s transition from absolutism to a constitutional monarchy on June 24 1932.

Marking the revolution has become increasingly taboo under the government of former army chief Prayut Chan-O-Cha.

The military describes itself as the protector of the kingdom’s unassailable monarchy, which is headed by King Maha Vajiralongkorn. He is shielded from criticism by harsh lese-majesty laws.

“We will revive the soul of the People’s Party from 88 years ago,” said Anon Numpa, an activist lawyer who organised the rally.

After years of coups, violent crackdowns and short-lived civilian governments, Thailand remains a country sharply divided.

The arch-royalist establishment holds power but is facing an increasingly bold youth-focused movement, fuelled by social media and tired of the kingdom’s yawning inequality and constricted freedoms.

A projection near the Democracy Monument — which was covered in a barricade and ringed by police — included a recording of the declaration by the People’s Party, a group of military and civil officers who staged the 1932 bloodless coup.

Later, at parliament, protesters unveiled a replica of a small bronze plaque marking the 1932 anniversary. The original was embedded in the ground of Bangkok’s Royal Plaza for decades before it mysteriously vanished in 2017.

Activists say the missing plaque is emblematic of a wider whitewashing of Thai political history. “They [the army] are trying to decrease the people’s power,” said activist Pachanee Kamnak, urging revisions to the country’s army-scripted constitution.

At sundown, scores gathered at a skywalk in downtown Bangkok carrying signs that said “we want freedom”, while one protester mimed reading a book by Jit Phumisak, a famed anti-dictatorship philosopher who was killed in 1966.

Frank discussion or reporting on the monarchy from inside the kingdom is impossible under the lese-majesty laws. But last week, Prayut gave a rare explainer of the law, saying it has not been used in recent years at the “mercy” of the king.

Still, critics say there has been a surge of charges under other laws, including the Computer Crimes Act. The disappearance more than two weeks ago of pro-democracy activist Wanchalearm Satsaksit, who is wanted by authorities for allegedly breaching the act, has also brewed discontent with Prayut’s administration.

Protester Jenny, who would only provide her nickname, said she followed the news of Wanchalearm’s disappearance closely. “It makes me want to cry,” she said. “I came here to show the people who control this country that ... we want our country back.”

Prayut is already facing the economic fallout of the coronavirus crisis, which has paralysed Thailand’s tourism-reliant economy and left millions jobless. The pandemic has seen an emboldened Thai social media light up with rare references to the king’s apparent absence in Germany during much of the crisis.

AFP