Thai protesters rally ahead of parliamentary debate

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Pro-democracy activists wave their mobile phone with flashing lights, during a protest rally at Ratchaprasong business district in Bangkok, Thailand, Sunday, Oct. 25, 2020. Pro-democracy protesters in Thailand gathered again Sunday in Bangkok, seeking to keep up pressure on the government a day ahead of a special session of Parliament called to try to ease political tensions. (AP Photo/Gemunu Amarasinghe)

BANGKOK – Thousands of pro-democracy protesters gathered in Thailand's capital again on Sunday, seeking to keep up pressure on the government a day before a special session of Parliament that was called to try to ease political tensions.

The rally took place at the busy Rajprasong intersection, in the heart of Bangkok's shopping district. Few protesters turned out in the first hour of the rally, but their numbers later swelled to several thousand, who listened to rude denunciations of the government in chants, speeches and even songs.

The rally was called Saturday night after Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha ignored the protesters’ deadline to step down.

The protesters’ core demands also include a more democratic constitution and reforms to the monarchy. Public criticism of the monarchy is unprecedented in a country where the royal institution has been considered sacrosanct.

The demonstrators charge that Prayuth, who led a coup in 2014 as the army chief, was returned to power unfairly in last year’s general election because laws had been changed to favor a pro-military party. The protesters also say that the constitution, written and enacted under military rule, is undemocratic.

Prayuth’s government last week called the special parliamentary session to seek to defuse weeks of almost daily protests. The session begins Monday and is expected to last two days.

“The only way to a lasting solution for all sides that is fair for those on the streets as well as for the many millions who choose not to go on the streets is to discuss and resolve these differences through the parliamentary process,” Prayuth said last week.

He also lifted a state of emergency that he had imposed a week earlier that made the protest rallies illegal.

The protesters were not impressed by his efforts to appease them, declaring them insincere.

They noted on social media that the points of discussion submitted by the government for debate dealt not with their concerns but were thinly disguised criticisms of the protests themselves.

They concern the risk of the coronavirus spreading at rallies, the alleged interference with a royal motorcade by a small crowd earlier this month, and illegal gatherings and the destruction of images of the royal family.

Protest organizers have called for a Monday afternoon march to the German Embassy in central Bangkok, far from the Parliament complex on the outskirts of the city.

The apparent rationale for the march is to bring attention to the protesters’ contention that King Maha Vajiralongkorn spends much of his time in Germany.

Protesters’ criticism of the royal institution has irked conservative Thais because the monarchy traditionally has been treated as sacrosanct.

Self-proclaimed “defenders of the monarchy” mobilized last week online and in rallies in several cities, in many cases led by local civil servants. On Wednesday, a small royalist rally in Bangkok broke into violence when a few attendees attacked anti-government student activists.

On Sunday, as many as 1,000 royalists gathered peacefully outside Parliament, vowing to stay overnight so they could make known to lawmakers in the morning their opposition to any changes in the status of the monarchy.