Thailand Arrests Student Leader Before Rally on Monarchy Reform

Thailand arrested a student leader ahead of a major rally on Sunday afternoon by groups calling for the military-backed government’s resignation and curbs on the power of King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

Parit Chiwarak, one of the leading voices in the student-led movement, was arrested on Friday, according to a Facebook post by the Student Union of Thailand. Social media posts showed him being carried away by plainclothes police officers into a car. The police said he faces multiple charges including sedition.

Student-led groups are expecting a crowd topping 10,000 people to rally on Sunday after they released 10 demands to rein in the monarchy’s powers. They include revoking strict lese-majeste laws, allowing criticism of the king, separating the monarch’s properties from the Crown Property Bureau, banning the sovereign from expressing political opinions and prohibiting the monarchy from endorsing any coups.

The protests are breaking deeply-entrenched taboos in Thailand, where openly criticizing the monarch can lead to long jail sentences and worse. Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-Ocha, a former army chief who staged a coup in 2014, said on Thursday the majority of Thais disagreed with the protests as calls grow from the royal establishment to stop them.

“Lock up 10 people, lock up 20 people — it won’t stop the movement,” said Tyrell Haberkorn, professor of Southeast Asian studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “The range of support for the changes young people are calling for is quite broad. It crosses class, it crosses region, it crosses age. It’ll be very hard for them to be silenced.”

More on Thailand’s protests:
  • Thailand’s Dilemma: Silence Students or Allow Monarchy Criticism
  • Why Protesters Are Back on the Streets in Thailand: QuickTake
  • Thailand to Investigate Those Behind Protests, Premier Says
  • Thai Students Risk Jail With Calls to Curb Monarchy’s Power (1)

On Wednesday, Parit and another leader, Panusaya Sithijirawattanakul, posted on their Facebook accounts that they noticed plainclothes officers around their residence. Panusaya said Friday she would continue to speak out about the monarchy even though she expected to be arrested in what may be a violent crackdown.

“Eventually it will happen, yes, but if I can I will try to not lose everyone in violent protests,” she said by phone. “I don’t want violence so I will try to focus on peace.”

The Metropolitan Police said in a statement late Friday that Parit’s arrest was for a demonstration on July 18. Other leaders of that demonstration — Panupong Jadnok and Arnon Nampa — were arrested on Aug. 7, and were released on bail. Parit’s charges are similar to the other leaders, according to the police statement.

“The litigation and the arrest of the demonstration leaders strictly abide rules and laws with respect to basic legal rights of those being arrested,” the police said after the arrest.

Sunday’s rally is being organized by Free People, an umbrella group that includes several student organizations as well as gay, lesbian and transgender youths. Labor groups have also said that they’ll also join the gathering at Democracy Monument, which commemorates the 1932 revolution that ended absolute monarchy.

On Thursday, Prayuth questioned the motives of the group and said the country is facing more important problems related to a hobbled economy following the pandemic. His party, Palang Pracharath, condemned some of the protest leaders who spoke out against the monarchy and said people in the country “won’t let anybody destroy an institution that’s loved and respected.”

A call to the Bureau of the Royal Household went unanswered on Saturday.

‘Nothing Like the Past’

Since taking over, Vajiralongkorn has displayed his authority as head of state more overtly.

The kingrebuked exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra after an election in which his allies won the most seats, took command of some army units and approved legal changes that gave him ownership of Crown Property Bureau assets. Those include stakes in Siam Commercial Bank Pcl and Siam Cement Pcl worth about $6.7 billion combined, according to the firms’ websites and Bloomberg calculations.

The government should look to engage in talks with students on how the monarchy can evolve instead of just declaring any discussions on the matter illegal, said Titipol Phakdeewanich, dean of the political science faculty at Ubon Ratchathani University in northeastern Thailand.

“The government can’t turn a blind eye on the movement,” he said. “This is nothing like the past.”

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