BANGKOK – Thousands of protesters, carrying yellow inflatable rubber ducks over their heads, descended on an elite military unit in Thailand Sunday as they called for limits to the power of the monarchy.
With chants of “my tax, my tax,” demonstrators massed outside the headquarters of the 11th Infantry Regiment — an elite unit placed under the control of Thailand’s immensely rich and powerful King Maha Vajiralongkorn.
“The army in this country was never here to protect the people, but they’ve always been here to protect the royal family,” 27-year-old Bom, a protester, said.
“Thor had his hammer,” said 25-year-old graphic designer Angkana, referring to the movie, “Hammer of the Gods.”
“We have our ducks. At least they protect us,” Angkana added. The rubber duck has become an emblem of the protest movement.
Breaking a taboo, protesters are targeting all areas of the king’s power — from his $2.3 billion holding in one of the country’s top banks to his preferred army units and status in his overseas sanctuary in Germany. They are turning up the pressure on the monarch to pull his support for unpopular Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-O-Cha.
They are demanding Prayuth’s resignation and a new constitution to excise the army from politics once and for all, in a country which has had 13 coups in less than a century.
But they also want reform of the monarchy to keep it within the constitution, outside of politics with its spending and influence restrained.
Thailand’s monarchy is protected by a tough royal defamation law which carries up to 15 years in prison per charge of insulting, defaming, or threatening the palace.
At least a dozen protest leaders were hit with the charge over the last week after anti-monarchy graffiti was sprayed across downtown Bangkok.
The monarch commands the loyalty of the army top brass, the business elite and many mainly older conservatives across the country.
A generation gap has subsequently opened, with the youth-driven protesters refusing to moderate their demands for reform of the monarchy and royalists enraged that the protesters have taken aim at the palace.
“Their demands are never ending… and the kids are ‘acting up,’ getting bored of one thing, then moving onto another,” Somchai Sawangkarn, one of the 250 senators appointed by Prayuth, said.
Violent clashes between pro-democracy protesters and “yellow shirt” royalists — so called for wearing the king’s colors — left scores injured on November 17 outside parliament, as legislators voted against constitutional reforms demanded by the street movement.
Thailand has a history of violent political convulsions. Pro-democracy movements dating to the 1970s have ended in bloodshed on Bangkok’s streets.
But the open anti-monarchy sentiment and near-daily occupation of key parts of the capital are also wearing on the government, which is already struggling with a flatlining economy caused by the collapse of tourism during the coronavirus.
“The government hasn’t done a great job in controlling the protesters. They arrest them and let them out on bail, that’s why things have escalated. Tougher measures are needed,” said Senator Somchai.
Meanwhile, a hearing has been set for Wednesday at the constitutional court to determine whether Prayuth committed an illegal act by staying in an army residence after he retired from the military.
The court could ultimately remove him from office as it has done to several prime ministers before in times of political crisis — although they were aligned to the pro-democracy camp.
Experts say a Prayuth exit after six years, by order of the courts, could be a face-saving way for the establishment to meet one of the protesters’ three demands without being seen as bending to pressure.
But in the unlikely event the court removes a key establishment player, it is far from certain that would defang an increasingly angry protest movement.
“I’ve gone to almost every protest,” said Angkana. “I will fight as long as it takes to get all three demands answered. I won’t budge.”
There are fears of a military intervention if the crisis drags on, prompting the army chief to say that would not be the case.