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Biggest Thai protest in years cheers calls to reform monarchy

BANGKOK (Reuters) - Tens of thousands of people joined Thailand’s biggest protest in years on Saturday, cheering calls to curb the powers of King Maha Vajiralongkorn’s monarchy and for the removal of former coup leader Prayuth Chan-ocha as prime minister.

“Unless the monarchy is under the constitution, we will never achieve true democracy,” protest leader and human rights lawyer Arnon Nampa told the crowd gathered within sight of the Grand Palace in central Bangkok.

“More, more,” the crowd chanted after Arnon called for cuts to the royal budget and changes to the constitution to bring the king clearly under its control.

The Royal Palace was not available for comment on the protest and the demands for reform.

“People can protest but they should do that peacefully and within the law,” said government spokesman Anucha Burapachaisri when asked to comment.

Arnon said protesters would on Sunday declare “the country belongs to the people, not the monarchy” and place a commemorative brass plaque, echoing the words of the leaders of the 1932 upheaval that ended absolute monarchy.

Protests that have been building in the southeast Asian country of 70 million since mid-July have broken a long-standing taboo by criticising the monarchy as well as seeking a new constitution and elections.

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Thai authorities have said criticising the monarchy is unacceptable in a country where the king is constitutionally “enthroned in a position of revered worship”. Lese majeste laws mean those insulting the monarchy can be jailed.

“DON’T TALK ABOUT THE KING”

Conservatives are horrified by attacks on the monarchy.

“You can drive out the prime minister, but don’t talk about the king,” commented one Facebook user as speeches were broadcast live from the protest.

Reuters reporters estimated there were at least 30,000 people in the demonstration. Organisers said there were more than 50,000, while police said there were 18,000, still enough to make it the biggest since Prayuth took power in a 2014 coup.

Protesters have said they plan to march to Government House on Sunday morning.

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The king was not in Thailand and has spent much of his time in Europe since taking the throne from his late father in 2016.

Speakers at the protest criticised the king for his absence and for his personal behaviour, comments that until recently would not have been made in public.

“The people are humans, not dust under your royal feet,” student leader Panusaya Sithijirawattanakul told the protest early on Sunday. “The people want a king who protects democracy, not one who betrays the people’s democracy.”

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The military, which proclaims itself the defender of the monarchy and national stability, has carried out several bloody crackdowns on protesters since the end of absolute monarchy in 1932 as well as 13 successful coups.

Sept. 19 is the anniversary of the coup against the populist then-prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra in 2006. Among the protesters were many of his red shirt followers, veterans of clashes a decade ago with pro-establishment yellow shirts.

“I’m here to fight for the future of my children and grandchildren. I hope that by the time I die, they will become free,” said 68-year-old Tasawan Suebthai, a redshirt with amulets round her neck which she hoped would ward off bullets.

The latest protests have been peaceful so far, but more than a dozen protest leaders have been arrested and released on bail. None has been charged under the lese majeste laws which protesters want scrapped.

They also seek to reduce the king’s constitutional powers and his control over the palace fortune and units of the army.

Additional reporting by Jiraporn Kuhakan, Panarat Thepgumpanat and Panu Wongcha-Um in Bangkok, Ben Blanchard in Taipei; Editing by William Mallard, David Holmes and Gareth Jones

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