BANGKOK – In unison, anti-government protesters on Wednesday described the King of Thailand as a giant screen lizard, one of the worst things that can be said about anyone in Thailand, and spray-painted bus stops and sidewalks in the capital’s central business district with graffiti describing His sexual activity.
The insults showed the growing boldness of protesters in a country where criticizing King Maha Vajiralongkorn Boudendradibayafarangkon, 68, could be a criminal offense, and the security apparatus has a history of crushing dissent. They have been gathering by the thousands across Thailand for months, calling on the Prime Minister associated with the military to resign and for the constitutional monarchy to actually come under the constitution.
As the protesters made their way to the doors of the Thai parliament on Tuesday, one of their leaders, Arnon Namba, stood on a truck that had multiplied as a stage and delivered a bold ultimatum to the country’s ruling elite.
“One day, if there is no reform, we will revolt,” said Mr. Arnon, a human rights lawyer, amid a whiff of tear gas.
The foundation advised patience. Last month, Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha, a former general who came to power during a military coup six years ago, withdrew an emergency decree targeting the protests. He acknowledged that spraying water cannons on young protesters was not the most productive strategy and said that Parliament needs time to do its job in addressing reform.
But on Wednesday, Parliament passed its ruling: Certain parts of the constitution may be amended in the coming months, but not any sections that relate to property.
Hours earlier, on Tuesday night, police used water cannons again to spray protesters with a liquid decorated with corrosive agents. Dozens of people were taken to hospital, some with gunshot wounds. Mr. Prayut remains Prime Minister.
Mr. Arnon, who has been charged with multiple counts of sedition and other crimes that could lead to decades of imprisonment, expressed his little surprise at the current situation.
Despite the dynamism of the protesters – they spread humor, logistical prowess, and oversized inflatable buoys to protect from water cannons – the demonstrations have not, so far, stimulated little change in how Thailand is governed.
“If the house is so destroyed, we shouldn’t fix it,” Mr. Arnon said in an interview on Wednesday. “We have absolutely no hope of reforming the monarchy through parliament.”
Thus, he added, the marches will now focus squarely on the protesters’ most combustible demands: curbing the powers of one of the world’s richest and most powerful kingdoms.
“We are now fighting head-to-head,” said Mr. Arnon. “There is no hidden agenda.”
A demonstration was called on Wednesday with the slogan “If we burn, burn with us.” Some protesters, angered by the use of tear gas and water cannons the previous day, threw buckets of paint at the police headquarters and covered nearby signs denouncing Mr. Prayut and the king.
Along the way, a spray-painted sign appeared in English: “The king is dead. Long live the people.” A man urinated into a bottle and threw it at police officers behind riot shields.
Under the protection of some of the most stringent anti-defamation laws in the world, the Thai monarchy moved within months from an untouchable institution, whispering only in secret, to the subject of open criticism.
Protesters asked why King Maha Vajiralongkorn spent most of his reign outside of Thailand. They note that their taxes fund his stay in Europe. His complicated family arrangements are the source of the irony. (Last year, he married his fourth wife, called another woman the royal consort, and then purged the consort for trying to persuade the queen. He regained her status in September)
Most of all, the protesters called for an investigation into the crown’s multi-billion dollar fortune, which is now under the king’s personal control. He also placed major military units under his command, with forces deemed loyal to him quickly being promoted.
Under the leadership of other students and youth, the Thai protest movement has embraced a host of issues, supported gay rights and labor unions, and called for an end to strict school rules and a tax on menstrual products.
But the protesters’ increasingly direct condemnation of the monarchy – even when couched as a push for reform rather than a move to topple the entire establishment – shocked some Thais. On Tuesday, the demonstrators carried a large balloon that read, “We told you you belong to the constitution.” Use this orientation to the king as the lowest form of “you” in language that reflects multiple hierarchies of social hierarchy.
“The language used was something unacceptable to the Thais,” said Warung Dishgatefigrum, a prominent royal. These are not reform measures, but rather measures to overthrow the monarchy.
With anger simmering on Tuesday and Wednesday, it was difficult to see room for a political settlement. Protesters called for another mass rally within a week.
“I would be lying to myself if I said there was hope, and I would be lying to myself as well if I said there was no hope,” said Rangsiman Roma, the opposition lawmaker who unsuccessfully tried to pass some of the most controversial constitutional amendments. Wednesday.
In the background there are concerns that the security forces may put pressure on protesters, as they have done with lethal force on several occasions. There are also fears of a possible coup by the army, as has happened dozens of times since the overthrow of the absolute monarchy in 1932.
The palace itself was largely silent about the protests. King Maha Vajiralongkorn returned from Germany last month and has been in Thailand for weeks, which is a rare occurrence.
On Tuesday, around the same time that water cannons began shooting at protesters in Bangkok, he attended the graduation ceremony of the Police Student School where he urged graduates to “gain confidence in others.”
Three days earlier, he attended the opening ceremony of a new Bangkok electric railway that was named in honor of his official coronation last year. After greeting well-wishers, signing autographs, and accepting cash donations from them – a break from the usual removal with which the public was treated – the king settled into the carriage seats with his queen.
A row of men in white, a symbol of submission in Thailand’s modern constitutional monarchy, knelt at their feet.