BANGKOK: Pro-democracy protesters take part in an anti-government rally outside the headquarters of the Siam Commercial Bank in Bangkok yesterday. - AFP

BANGKOK: Thai pro-democracy protesters gathered in Bangkok yesterday as police summoned 12 of their leaders to answer charges of royal defamation, the first use of the draconian law in almost three years. At least a thousand demonstrators-many brandishing the yellow toy ducks that have become a symbol of the movement-took to the streets near the headquarters of the Siam Commercial Bank (SCB) to protest at the secrecy surrounding King Maha Vajiralongkorn's wealth. Thailand has for months been rocked by youth-led protests demanding a new constitution, reform of the untouchable monarchy, and for Prime Minister Prayut Chan-O-Cha to resign.

Tensions in Bangkok have been rising-police used water cannon and tear gas at a rally outside parliament last week, with 55 people injured and six shot in scuffles with royalists. The source of the gunfire is under investigation. The protesters had planned to rally outside the headquarters of the Crown Property Bureau yesterday, prompting police to lock down the area with razor wire and rows of shipping containers.

But overnight they flagged they would switch the protest to the main office of the Siam Commercial Bank-in which the king is a major shareholder-to avoid potential clashes with a rival ultra-royalist rally. Sea, 27 a masters student from Phuket, described the police use of containers to protect the Crown Property Bureau as a "joke".

"I have two emotions. First I was angry and then I laughed. It's very funny. On the internet we make fun of their actions every day," Sea said. Many protesters were sporting yellow ducks-on T-shirts, hats and helmets-after demonstrators used larger inflatable versions last week to defend themselves against police water cannon and tear gas.

As protester numbers grew, there was a festive atmosphere with police-not wearing riot gear-keeping a relatively low profile. Stalls sprang up yesterday selling a huge range of yellow duck merchandise, while some were even giving out pretend money adorned with a crowned version of the bathtime toy.

Royal wealth
The focus of yesterday's protest is the secrecy surrounding the royal finances. Soon after coming to power following his father's death in 2016, the new king took control of the Crown Property Bureau, which has assets in banks, companies and prime real estate. The bureau's board was previously headed by the finance minister in an arrangement that gave a sheen of public oversight to a trust some experts estimate is worth $30-$60 billion. The full assets are privately held and remain a closely guarded secret.

On the eve of yesterday's protest, 12 leaders received police orders to come for questioning over allegations of royal defamation. Thailand has one of the harshest lese majeste laws in the world. It is routinely interpreted to include any criticism of the monarchy-including content posted or shared on social media. Under section 112 of the penal code, anyone convicted of defaming, insulting or threatening the king, queen or their faces between three and 15 years in prison on each count.

The laws have not been invoked since 2018, but last week Prime Minister Prayut gave the green light for authorities to use them, after protesters daubed anti-royal graffiti around police headquarters in central Bangkok. "I'm not scared just one bit and I believe that by being sent the 112 summons, it will bring out more people to (Wednesday's) rally," Parit "Penguin" Chiwarak, one of the 12 called for questioning, said.

"Does this mean the monarchy has declared an all-out war with the people-is that right?" Government spokesman Anucha Burapachaisri told AFP the authorities were "increasingly concerned about attempts to undermine the rule of law" and would use "all pertaining laws" to pursue troublemakers. - AFP