Story by Benjamin Freeman, UCA News
Photos by Will Langston

From outside the gates of Sanam Luang, it looked like a festive rally, with youths dressed in flamboyant costumes, funky tunes playing on loudspeakers and both youths and grandparents waving the “Hunger Games” movie salute and colorful signs.

Yet step into the middle of Saturday’s massive, yet peaceful, protest and it was evident that the tens of thousands who amassed on the royal cremation ground beside Bangkok’s Grand Palace were dead serious about the sweeping political reforms they demanded.

It was Thailand’s largest anti-government rally in years and the most-dramatic evidence yet that this no longer is a movement only of young, university students. A crowd of what some estimated at 100,000 people ran the gamut from young to old, urbanite to farmer, privileged to not.

In fiery speeches, protest leaders threw down the gauntlet to the country’s repressive, military-allied government by insisting that nothing short of a return to “true democracy” would suffice.

“Prayut needs to go. We want him out,” a young protester bearing a satirical hand-drawn caricature of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, a former army chief who spearheaded the coup, told UCA News, a Bangkok Herald partner.

But the protesters pledged to achieve more than just get the prime minister to resign. Another main theme of the protest was a direct challenge to the country’s monarchy.

Defying a law against royal defamation, numerous participants held handwritten signs that mocked HM the King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

“Unless the monarchy [abides by] the constitution, we will never achieve true democracy,” Arnon Nampa, the human-rights lawyer who has has led the protest movement, said from a stage to loud cheers from thousands.

Arnon already was facing charges of sedition and other crimes, along with dozens of other young activists, because of their participation in earlier protests.

He later led a group of demonstrators in replacing a plaque in the pavement near the Grand Palace that commemorated a revolution orchestrated by progressive army officers in 1932 that overthrew absolute monarchy in Thailand. The original plaque, which had been in place for decades, went missing in mysterious circumstances in 2017 and was replaced with a new one that promotes loyalty to the monarchy.

The new plaque has already been removed by authorities.

By openly challenging the political influence of the monarchy and its alleged alliance with the Thai Royal Army, demonstrators have dispensed with an age-old taboo in what is a historic development, prominent observers say.

A longer version of this story first appeared in UCA News, a Bangkok Herald partner. Will Langston is a freelance photographer based in Chiang Mai.