Thousands of protesters gathered at Sanam Luang in Bangkok on Saturday ahead of a march on Sunday that organisers say will mark the formation of a “new People’s Party”.
The mostly young demonstrators, who began the day by assembling in the rain at the Tha Prachan campus of Thammasat University nearby, have been demanding a new constitution and the resignation of the current government that remains closely aligned with the military.
But some leaders of the movement have also been pressing for reform of the monarchy, an issue that has provoked strong reactions from more conservative elements of society.
Saturday’s rally also attracted many seasoned protest veterans from the red-shirt United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD). After keeping a low profile for the past few years, they have decided to throw their support behind the movement.
The demonstrators are camping overnight at Sanam Luang before setting out for Government House on Sunday morning for what activist Parit "Penguin" Chiwarak said would be a "big surprise". Earlier in the day, organisers had indicated that Government House was no longer their destination. This story will be updated regularly and readers can also follow our feeds on Facebook and Twitter.
11.30pm: Human rights lawyer Arnon Nampha delivers a fiery speech in which he says demonstrators on Sunday morning will install a new plaque commemorating the 1932 Revolution that overthrew absolute monarchy. The original plaque was removed without explanation from the Royal Plaza in 2017, and no one in authority will say what happened to it.
“Today, the 2020 People's Party has officially been formed at this people's field,” Mr Arnon said. “Tomorrow the plaque will be planted. The second People's Party declaration will be read. All of us will be free.”
10.30pm: Speakers have been taking turns on the stage, reiterating that the prime minister should resign and the constitution must be rewritten. One speaker rips into the military in front of a giant screen showing images of soldiers behaving badly toward citizens and army chief Apirat Kongsompong weeping. Other speakers touch on topics including corruption and the great disparity between rich and poor in Thailand.
Among the speakers is Sirawith “Ja New” Seritiwat, an outspoken critic of the former military junta, who had been keeping a low profile since a savage beating in June last year. The four baton-wielding men who assaulted him in broad daylight near his home in Klong Sam Wa district have never been caught.
Musicians are keeping the crowd entertained in between speeches, and no protest these days is complete without the sight of thousands of mobile phone flashlights held aloft. Organisers expect the speeches to continue until midnight.
Coordinated flash mobs of Thais abroad were also reportedly held on Saturday in 19 cities — Tapei, Tokyo, Gold Coast region, Sydney, Wellington, Vancouver, Los Angeles, Winnipeg, New York, Oslo, Copenhagen, Paris, Helsinki, Stockholm, Hamburg, Berlin and Pristina (Kosovo).
The events are taking place on the 14th anniversary of the military coup that overthrew Thaksin Shinawatra. Thaksin has posted a message on his Facebook page asking people if they feel they are any better off now than they were then.
7pm: Politicians spotted at the rally include Move Forward Party leader Pita Limjaroenrat and some party MPs; former Future Forward stalwarts Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, Piyabutr Saengkanokkul and Pannika Wanich, now of the Progressive Movement; Chaturon Chaisang, a former Thai Raksa Chart member; and Parit Wacharasindhu, a former Democrat Party member.
Various interest groups have set up desks where people are invited to sign up in support of bills such as a new alcohol bill that would allow craft beer, and another one dealing with abortion rights. The Internet Dialogue on Law Reform (iLaw) has attracted a lot of support for a people’s version of a bill to draft a new constitution, which it will submit to Parliament on Tuesday.
6.30pm: Police estimate the crowd has grown to about 20,000 but an organiser on the rally stage claimed the figure had reached 100,000. The umbrellas are out again as light rain has resumed.
Crowd estimates always vary wildly depending on who is counting. Sanam Luang covers about 110,000 square metres and about one-third of it is still blocked off. Most participants are sitting, representing a density of about one person for every 1-2 sq m, but some areas are still open. AFP reporters on the ground put the number at about 30,000, which seems to square with aerial photographs.
5pm: Police fence off the grass at Sanam Luang and say demonstrators can use only the paved area of the site, where the stage has been set up, but the crowd continues to swell, breaking down the barriers and moving onto the grass where they settle in for a long night.
Police set up a new barrier across the grass closer to the Grand Palace. The Public Assembly Act forbids gathering within 150 metres from the compound of the Grand Palace and palaces of Royal Family members. Three large water trucks have been stationed behind the new barrier.
A handful of protesters carry a three-metre long replica submarine, a symbol of the type of state spending they oppose, into Sanam Luang.
The latest police estimate of the crowd is 5,000 but many more are expected to arrive as the night goes on, with the main speeches not expected to start until around 9pm.
3.40pm: More demonstrators move from Thammasat University to Sanam Luang, in defiance of police warnings that the “royal ground” is off-limits. Police also warn that entry within a 50-metre radius of the Supreme Court is prohibited.
“Sanam Laung in the past was a public space used by the people. Occupying it is seizing it back,” the rally organisers said in an earlier statement.
Ratchadamnoen Klang Avenue might also be closed for art exhibitions and other activities. The road name will be changed to “Rassadon Avenue”, they said.
Organisers say the rally will continue overnight. At 8am on Sunday, an anti-dictatorship march will begin — but not to Government House as planned earlier, and where security officials had concentrated many of their resources to protect the site.
“We had said we would march to Government House. But now whoever is waiting there can go home,” the organisers’ statement said. “As to where we’ll go, we’ll announce on that day.”
3pm: About 1,000 people begin to move into Sanam Luang, along with a truck carrying equipment to set up a large rally stage. Police ask demonstrators to end the rally at Sanam Luang within one hour, citing a breach of the Public Assembly Act as organisers did not inform officers about the activity 24 hours in advance.
As Pol Col Vorasak Pisitthabannakorn, chief of the Chana Songkhram station, reads the announcement, some demonstrators try to disconnect his microphone cord. Others face off opposite anti-riot police and flash three-finger salutes. Police have to open the gates to let the demonstrators in
Noon: The crowd’s anger grows as the university gates remain locked. Some attempt to climb over the fence to get inside. Protest leaders Panusaya “Rung” Sithijirawattanakul and Panupong “Mike Rayong” Jadnok calm the crowd and negotiate with university staff, who finally agree to open the gates to allow the crowds in.
11am: Sanam Luang, Tha Prachan and Tha Phra Arthit gates all remain closed. Police and medical personnel set up checkpoints with metal detectors and for temperature checks.
10.40am: Panupong arrives at the venue, saying he wants to observe the situation and see how many people joined the rally. He says he never thought Thammasat would close its gates given its historical reputation for supporting free expression.
He says what worries him most is the possibility that “third hands” might instigate unrest during the rally, something that has happened on numerous politically charged occasions in the past, including in 2006 and 2010.
He insists the rally will be peaceful and is being staged to press three demands: dissolution of the House, a rewrite of the constitution and an end to harassment of those critical of the government.
10.30am: Activists from the so-called Free Isan Movement based in Maha Sarakham arrive at Sanam Luang with a truck equipped with loudspeaker. Some take turns to criticise the government.
Other red-shirt members from the North and Northeast continue to flock to the venue. Some carry placards reading “Red-shirt people stand by young people”. Artwork from several universities featuring anti-dictatorship messages is displayed along the fences of Thammasat University at the Sanam Luang side.
10.20am: Demonstrators arriving in large numbers on the Sanam Luang side. All had to pass through a weapons screening checkpoint.
10.10am: Officers from Provincial Police Region 2 stationed at the Tha Prachan entrance gate to the university.
A group of red-shirt protesters is spotted carrying a large banner bearing a picture of Maj Khattiya “Seh Daeng” Sawasdipol, who was killed by a sniper at the height of the UDD protests in 2010.
9am: Demonstrators begin streaming toward the campus where all gates are still locked. University administrators had earlier forbidden the use of the campus for the rally, saying protest leaders had not agreed to requests to curb some of their more controversial demands.
Wearing black T-shirts, face masks, raincoats and carrying umbrellas, school and university students and members of the public walk along Ratchadamnoen Avenue to the area in front of the university on Phra That Road in pouring rain.
Tents are set up in front of the campus from Gate 1 to Gate 2 with drinking water available.
At Lan Tha Prachan, health workers set up checkpoints to take the temperature of people attending the rally.
All told, 57 companies of police, or about 8,500 officers, have been deployed at 14 locations. Their number includes border patrol police from Chai Nat province and anti-riot officers from Nakhon Pathom.
Demonstrators confront anti-riot police at Sanam Luang on Saturday afternoon as the pro-democracy protest crowd grows. (Photo by Wichan Charoenkiatpakul)
Activist Panusaya “Rung” Sithijirawattanakul waves a red flag on a truck as she and colleague Panupong “Mike Rayong” Jadnok lead demonstrators into the Tha Prachan campus of Thammasat University. (Photo by Wichan Charoenkiatpakul)
Demonstrators cross a bridge across Khlong Lord on the way to Sanam Luang on Saturday evening. (Apichit Jinakul)