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Plaque symbolizing Thai democracy removed in less than a day

(A man walks near a hole at the Sanam Luang field in Bangkok, Thailand, Monday, Sept. 21, 2020. A plaque symbolizing Thailand’s transition to democracy has been removed less than 24 hours after it was installed by anti-government demonstrators in a historic royal field. AP Photo: Sakchai Lalit)

BANGKOK (AP):- A plaque symbolizing Thailand’s transition to democracy has been removed less than 24 hours after it was installed by anti-government demonstrators in a historic royal field.

The weekend demonstrations were the largest this year by protesters who vowed to press on with calls for new elections and reform of the monarchy. The plaque had been installed at Sanam Luang on Sunday to replace one mysteriously ripped out and stolen three years ago.

On Monday morning, journalists who went to Sanam Luang saw hardened cement in place of the plaque. A couple of police officers arrived moments later. It was unclear who ordered the removal of the plaque, and when it was removed.

Sanam Luang is a designated royal site, which until the last few years was open to all. It is near the Grand Palace.

Taiwuth Kankaew, the director of the Department of Public Works of Bangkok Metropolitan Authority, responsible for surveying and repairing damages in Sanam Luang. said he has no knowledge who removed the plaque.

On Sunday, a group of activists had drilled a hole in front of a makeshift stage and, after Buddhist rituals, laid a round brass plaque in cement to commemorate the 1932 revolution that changed Thailand from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy.

“At the dawn of Sept. 20, here is where the people proclaim that this country belongs to the people,” read part of the inscription.

The original plaque that vanished in 2017 had been replaced by one praising the monarchy.

“The nation does not belong to only one person, but belongs to us all,” student leader Parit “Penguin” Chirawak told the crowd. “Therefore, I would like to ask holy spirits to stay with us and bless the people’s victory.”

Another activist, Panusaya Sithijirawattanakul, said their demands do not propose getting rid of the monarchy. “They are proposals with good intentions to make the institution of the monarchy remain graciously above the people under democratic rule,” Panusaya said.

Still, such calls took the nation by surprise. Protesters’ demands seek to limit the king’s powers, establish tighter controls on palace finances and allow open discussion of the monarchy. Their boldness was unprecedented, as the monarchy is considered sacrosanct in Thailand, with a harsh law that mandates a three- to 15-year prison term for defaming it.

The protesters later tried to march toward the Grand Palace to hand over a petition seeking royal reforms to the king’s advisers, but were blocked by police barricades. One of them, Panusaya, was allowed to deliver the petition, which was addressed to the king. It was received by a police official, who promised to forward it to the Privy Council.

Just before the rally ended, Parit called for a general strike on Oct. 14, the anniversary of a student uprising in 1973 that ended a military dictatorship after dozens were killed by police. He also urged people to withdraw their funds and close their accounts at Siam Commercial Bank, in which the king is the biggest shareholder. Calls for comment to the bank, also known as SCB, and several of its corporate communications executives went unanswered or did not connect.

Parit also called for another protest Thursday outside parliament to follow up on the protesters’ demands.

Their core demands were the dissolution of parliament with fresh elections, a new constitution and an end to intimidation of political activists.

They believe Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, who as army commander led a 2014 coup toppling an elected government, was returned to power unfairly in last year’s election because the laws had been changed to favor a pro-military party. Protesters say a constitution promulgated under military rule is undemocratic.

The students are too young to have been caught up in the sometimes violent partisan battles that roiled Thailand a decade ago, said Kevin Hewison, a University of North Carolina professor emeritus and a veteran Thai studies scholar.

“What the regime and its supporters see is relatively well-off kids turned against them and this confounds them,” he said.

The appearance of the Red Shirts, while boosting the protest numbers, links the new movement to mostly poor rural Thais, supporters of former populist billionaire Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a 2006 coup. Thaksin was opposed by the country’s traditional royalist establishment.

Arrests for earlier actions on charges including sedition have failed to faze the young activists. They had been denied permission to enter the Thammasat University campus and Sanam Luang on Saturday, but when they pushed, the authorities retreated, even though police warned them that they were breaking the law.

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