Thai police to charge protest leaders with royal insult

BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thai police on Tuesday summoned seven leaders of anti-government protests to face charges of insulting the monarchy, a day before a planned demonstration to demand that the king give up control of the royal fortune, a police source and a rights group said.

A man walks next to barbwire ahead of a mass rally to call for the ouster of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha's government and reforms in the monarchy, at the Crown Property Bureau in Bangkok, Thailand, November 24, 2020. REUTERS/Chalinee Thirasupa

It will be the first time such charges have been brought under so-called lese majeste laws relating to insults to the royal family in more than two years. Anyone found guilty faces up to 15 years in prison.

Protests that began in July against Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha have increasingly turned to demands to curb the powers of King Maha Vajiralongkorn, breaking a longstanding taboo on criticising the monarchy.

One of the seven, Parit “Penguin” Chiwarak, said his family had received a summons for lese majeste in addition to other charges and he was not afraid.

“The ceiling has been broken. Nothing can contain us anymore,” he wrote on Twitter. He told Reuters: “This will expose the brutality of the Thai feudal system to the world.”

Others named included human rights lawyer Arnon Nampa, who became the first to call for royal reforms on Aug. 3, and Panusaya “Rung” Sithijirawattanakul, a student leader who set out 10 demands for royal reforms.

Neither was immediately available for comment.

The police source, who declined to be named because he was not authorised to speak to the media, said the protest leaders had until Nov. 30 to acknowledge the charges over comments made at protests on Sept. 19 and 20.

Thai Lawyers for Human Rights told Reuters that police had notified the protest leaders’ lawyers.

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The summonses came a day before protesters had said they would march to the office that manages the royal fortune to demand that the king give up personal control of the assets.

But instead of marching to the Crown Property Bureau, where police had set up barricades and planned to deploy nearly 6,000 officers, the venue was switched late on Tuesday.

Protesters said they would now meet at the headquarters of the Siam Commercial Bank, in which the king owns a stake of more than 23%, part of royal assets valued in the tens of billions of dollars.

“Let’s reclaim the property that should belong to the people,” the FreeYouth protest group said.

It said the change was made to avoid confrontation, including with royalists who had also planned to go to the Crown Property Bureau in defence of the monarchy.

Police were not immediately available for comment on the change.

More than 50 people were hurt last week when police used water cannon and tear gas against thousands of protesters at parliament, in the most violent day of more than four months of demonstrations.

The Royal Palace has made no comment since the protests began, although the king said the protesters were loved “all the same” when asked for comment on the demonstrations.

Prayuth has rejected protesters’ calls to resign and said last week that all laws would be used against protesters who break them - raising the concern of activists that the royal insult laws would be among them.

Additional reporting by Petra Mahira, Chayut Setboonsarng, Patpicha Tanakasempipat; Writing by Matthew Tostevin; Editing by Alex Richardson