BANGKOK – In unison, anti-government protesters on Wednesday called the king of Thailand a giant monitor lizard, one of the worst things anyone can say in Thai, and sprayed bus stops and pavements in the capital’s central business district with graffiti describing his sexual activity.
The insults demonstrated the increased audacity of the protesters in a country where criticism of 68-year-old King Maha Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarankun could be a crime, and the security apparatus has a history of crushing dissent. They have been gathering in the thousands in Thailand for months, calling on the military-linked prime minister to resign and for the constitutional monarchy to actually fall under the constitution.
“One day, if there is no reform, we will revolt,” said Mr Arnon, a human rights lawyer, amid tear gas.
The restaurant has advised patience. Last month, Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha, a former general who came to power in a military coup six years ago, withdrew an emergency decree targeting protests. He acknowledged that spraying water cannons on youth protesters was not the most productive strategy and said parliament needed time to do its job in fighting the reform.
But on Wednesday, Parliament handed down its verdict: Some parts of the Constitution may be amended in the coming months, but not all sections related to the monarchy.
Hours earlier, on Tuesday night, police again used water cannons to spray protesters with a liquid coated with corrosive agents. Dozens of people were hospitalized, some with bullet wounds. And Mr Prayut remains prime minister.
Mr Arnon, who has been charged with a number of thefts and other crimes that could land him in prison for decades, expressed little surprise at the situation.
Because of all the dynamics of the protesters – they used humor, logistics and large rubber duck floats to protect themselves from water cannons – so far the demonstrations have catalyzed a small change in the way Thailand is governed.
“If the house is too damaged, we should not repair it,” Mr Arnon said in an interview Wednesday. “We have absolutely no hope of reforming the monarchy through parliament.”
So, he added, the rallies will now focus directly on the most inflammatory of the protesters’ demands: limiting the power of one of the richest and most powerful monarchies in the world.
“I’m fighting face to face now,” Mr Arnon said. “There is no hidden agenda.”
Wednesday’s protest was convened with the slogan “If we burn, you burn with us.” Some demonstrators, outraged by the use of tear gas and water cannons the previous day, threw buckets of paint at police headquarters and covered nearby signs with denunciations of Mr. Prayut and the king.
Right on the road, a spray-painted sign read in English: “The king is dead. Long live the people. “A man urinates in a bottle and throws it at police officers standing in a formation behind the riot shields.
Shielded by some of the world’s strictest anti-defamation laws, the Thai monarchy moved from an untouchable institution, whispered only in private, to open criticism in a matter of months.
Protesters asked why King Maha Vajiralongkorn spent most of his rule outside Thailand. They note that their taxes finance his stay in Europe. His complicated family arrangements are a source of ridicule. (Last year, he married his fourth wife, called another woman a royal wife, and then purged his wife of trying to take the queen’s stage. He restored her status in September.)
Most of the protesters called for an investigation into the billions of dollars of the crown in wealth, which are now under the personal control of the king. He also brought key military units under his command, and forces deemed loyal to him were rapidly increased.
Led by students and other young people, the Thai protest movement has addressed a number of issues supporting gay and trade union rights and calling for an end to strict school rules and a tax on menstrual products.
But the increasingly direct condemnation of the protesters’ monarchy – though set as a push for reform rather than a move to overthrow the entire institution – shocked some Thais. On Tuesday, protesters carried a large balloon with the phrase, “We told you to abide by the constitution.” This directive to the monarch uses the lowest form of “you” in a language that reflects the many gradations of the social hierarchy.
“The language used was something that is unacceptable to Thais,” said Warong Dechgitwiggrom, a well-known royalist. “These are not actions for reform, but rather actions to overthrow the monarchy.”
As the temper flared on Tuesday and Wednesday, it was difficult to see room for political compromise. Protesters called for another mass rally in a week.
“I would be lying if I said there was hope, and I would also be lying if I said there is no hope,” said Rangsiman Rome, an opposition lawmaker who tried unsuccessfully to push through some of Wednesday’s more controversial constitutional changes.
In the background are fears that security forces may take serious action against protesters, as they have done with fatal force on several occasions. There are also concerns that the military may unleash a coup, as has happened a dozen times since the overthrow of the absolute monarchy in 1932.
The palace itself is largely silent on the protests. King Maha Vajiralongkorn returned from Germany last month and has been in Thailand for weeks, a rarity.
On Tuesday, at the same time as water cannons began firing on protesters in Bangkok, he attended the graduation ceremony of a police cadet school, urging graduates to “gain faith and trust from others.”
Three days earlier, he attended the opening ceremony of a new electric railway line in Bangkok, named in honor of his official coronation last year. After greeting well-wishers, signing autographs and accepting monetary donations from them – a break from the usual removal with which he took care of the public – the king sat in the seats of the carriage with his mistress.
A number of men in white uniforms knelt at their feet, a symbol of obedience in Thailand’s modern constitutional monarchy.