Thousands of activists protested in front of the Siam Commercial Bank on Wednesday, highlighting the wealth of the king, a day after the government deployed a law criminalizing criticism of the royal family for the first time since pro-democracy protests began in July.
The protesters noted how King Maha Vajiralongkorn, 68, assumed direct control of the Crown Property Bureau, which until his reign was under the Finance Ministry and managed the royal fortune on behalf of the monarchy.
Following the death of the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej in October 2016, the government changed the law, allowing the new king to appoint the bureau’s directors.
It was subsequently required “to return whatever asset of the Crown property previously under its charge, to His Majesty so that His Majesty may take decisions on all matters pertaining to their charge and management at his discretion,” according to a BBC report in June 2018.
“We call for the return of national assets,” said Parit Chiwarak, addressing about 8,000 protesters who gathered at the bank, where the king has a 23.53 percent stake, according to company information
Parit is one of a dozen activists summoned on Tuesday to face charges under the nation’s Lese-Majeste law, which criminalizes royal defamation with prison sentences of up to 15 years per offense.
Organizers had planned to rally in front of the Crown Property Bureau, but changed the venue because it was blocked by walls of containers and razor wire, Parit said. Organizers also dropped their call for a seven-day rally, saying protests would resume again on Friday.
“We will take the assets back to the people via the parliament,” said lawyer Anon Numpa, another protest leader. “We will hand over the properties to be under care of the government. The assets won’t be lost,” he said.
The Business Standard has estimated Vajiralongkorn’s fortune at $43 billion, including his share in the Siam Commercial Bank, the country’s fourth largest, and the Siam Cement conglomerate, along with vast tracts of land nationwide, making him the world’s richest monarch.
On Tuesday, the king handed over more than 1,900 acres to the government for public use, according to local media.
Wednesday’s protest ended around 9:30 p.m., but hours later at least two men were injured when an improvised explosive device detonated near the protest site, according to Erawan Center, which coordinates medical care during emergencies. They were taken to St. Louis Hospital and Rama IX hospital, respectively.
Concerns over comments
On Tuesday, the national police bureau issued summons to Anon, Parit and 10 other protest leaders over comments about the monarchy since the pro-democracy rallies began in mid-July. No activist had answered the summons as of late Wednesday.
The protests have focused on three demands – for Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha to step down, for the constitution to be rewritten and for the monarchy to be reformed.
In June, Prayuth said Lese-Majeste had not been used in the last few years because the king has been merciful.
The nation’s sedition law, which carries a maximum prison sentence of seven years, has been used instead, according to Thai Lawyers for Human Rights, a local legal advocacy group. Several of the protest leaders have already spent time in jail.
Following an incident where as many as six protesters were shot last week, Prayuth announced authorities would use “all pertaining laws” to crack down on the rallies.
Student leader Patsaravalee Tanakitvibulpon was one of the 12 summoned on Tuesday.
“The government should think carefully about exercising Article 112 (Lese-Majeste) because it was not used for quite some time and now it is used for political purposes,” she said. “The people’s response against the government depends on its approach.
“Of course Article 112 is harsh. Exercising pertaining laws simply slows us down, but won’t stop us. We will keep calling for democracy regardless,” she said.