Thailand’s democracy protesters have rallied outside a leading bank in which their billionaire king is the biggest shareholder to demand that more of his considerable wealth be shared with ordinary people.
In drawing attention to the personal fortune of 68-year-old Maha Vajiralongkorn, the demonstrators confronted arguably the single most sensitive topic in Thai public life.
The demonstration on Wednesday outside Siam Commercial Bank’s headquarters in Bangkok was one of the largest of the anti-establishment protests that have rocked Thailand this year, attracting at least 15,000 people.
Beforehand, the Free Youth Movement behind the demonstrations urged supporters to “join in reclaiming assets that should belong to the people”. Protesters erected a large sign in front of the bank accusing the king of having “robbed the nation’s business by stealing shares in SCB”.
“This is the country with the biggest inequality, but it has the richest king in the world,” said Panupong “Mike” Jadnok, one of the rally’s leaders, as cheers rang out.
Organisers had originally planned to gather outside the Crown Property Bureau, the royal trust that manages the king’s real estate and corporate holdings, with an estimated value of well over $40bn.
However, they switched to the new location after authorities deployed more than 6,000 police in Bangkok and blocked roads near to the CPB building with shipping containers and barbed wire.
The king, who ascended the throne in 2016 but mostly lives in Germany, signed over the CPB’s real estate and other holdings — formerly held in trust on behalf of the royal family and Thai people, under ministry of finance supervision — to his personal ownership in 2017. The move cemented his status as one of the world’s richest monarchs, but was little discussed publicly at the time because of Thailand’s harsh lèse majesté and other laws protecting the royal family from criticism.
In addition to real estate in Bangkok and around Thailand, the king owns via the CPB a 23.4 per cent stake in SCB, worth $2.3bn at its current share price, and a 33.6 per cent stake in Siam Cement Group worth $4.9bn.
Thai police allowed Wednesday’s protest to proceed peacefully, but authorities this week took other steps indicating they intend to take a harder line against a movement that has made unprecedented public calls for limits on the king’s power and wealth.
This week police issued summonses for more than 12 people, including prominent protest leaders Parit “Penguin” Chiwarak and Panusaya “Rung” Sithijirawattanakul, on charges of lèse majesté, which carries a prison term of three to 15 years. Thai authorities had not charged anyone with the crime, whose abolition is one of the student-led protest movement’s demands, since 2017.
“Bringing back the draconian lèse majesté prosecution against monarchy critics after an almost three-year hiatus is a clear message that those questions are not going to be tolerated, and there will be no compromise with demands raised at the youth-led pro-democracy protests seeking to curb the king’s powers,” said Sunai Phasuk, a researcher with Human Rights Watch.
Prayuth Chan-ocha, the prime minister, said on Wednesday at a press conference: “Whoever breaks the law will face legal prosecution.” Protesters at Wednesday’s demonstration staged a mock funeral of the Thai leader and raised their middle fingers to a portrait of him.
Mr Parit, the student leader, accused the elites of using “yellow shirt” royalist vigilantes and police to hurt protesters. “If Vajiralongkorn decides to use violence without proper reason, he will not be able to return to Germany, and he will not be able to enter any western country.”
Angela Merkel’s government has made it clear that it does not want the Thai king making political decisions from German soil. The king has spent time living in a villa and a hotel in Bavaria, and his wife Queen Suthida spends some of her time in Switzerland, according to local media reports.
Additional reporting by Ryn Jirenuwat