Plaque symbolizing Thai democracy removed in less than a day

World

Pro-democracy student leaders install a plaque declaring “This country belongs to the people” at the Sanam Luang field during a protest in Bangkok, Thailand, Sunday, Sept. 20, 2020. Anti-government demonstrators occupying a historic field in the Thai capital on Sunday installed a plaque symbolizing the country’s transition to democracy to replace the original one that was mysteriously ripped and stolen three years ago, as they vowed to press on with calls for new elections and reform of the monarchy. (AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit)

BANGKOK (AP) — A plaque honoring struggles for democracy in Thailand was removed from a royal field less than 24 hours after being installed by anti-government protesters and was submitted as evidence in connection with a complaint by officials that its installation was illegal, police said Monday.

The plaque had been installed Sunday at Sanam Luang, the historic field in the capital where tens of thousands of people rallied peacefully over the weekend. The two-day demonstration was the largest this year by protesters who are calling for new elections and reform of the monarchy.

An officer at a nearby police station said the government’s Fine Arts Department and the Bangkok city government filed a complaint that protesters had destroyed an archaeological site and “handed the plaque over to us to be used as evidence.”

“They are the responsible agencies over the area, as it is a public area registered as an archaeological site,” said the officer, police Supt. Worasak Pitsitbannakorn. “They reported the damage to us and we will have to determine which laws have been violated.” He said that the two agencies were responsible for removing the plaque, but that police were present as witnesses for legal reasons.

Sanam Luang is a designated royal site near Bangkok’s Grand Palace that until the last few years had been open to everyone. The plaque was installed in a part of the dirt field that had been cemented over several years ago.

The plaque was a symbolic replacement for one mysteriously ripped out from the pavement and taken away three years ago. That plaque, located at a plaza in another part of Bangkok’s old center, honored the 1932 revolution that saw the military force a change from absolute monarchy to constitutional monarchy. It was replaced by a plaque praising the monarchy.

The new round brass plaque was installed Sunday by activists who made a hole in the Sanam Luang pavement and held a short religious ceremony.

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

Student protest leader Parit “Penguin” Chirawak, who was among those who installed the new plaque, said that its removal did not matter.

“What matters is this plaque, and its message has been installed in the people’s hearts,” Parit said Monday as he headed to the prosecutors’ office to deal with legal charges stemming from previous protests.

The protesters’ demands, including limiting the king’s powers, establishing tighter controls on palace finances and allowing open discussion of the monarchy, are controversial because the monarchy is considered sacrosanct in Thailand. The activists are considered especially bold because there is a harsh lese majeste law mandating a three- to 15-year prison term for defaming the royal institution.

Police said Monday that they were looking at evidence as they considered a variety of offenses with which the protesters could be charged.

The deputy Metropolitan Police Bureau commissioner, Maj. Gen. Piya Tawichai, said 16 of the protest leaders would be charged with assembling to protest without asking for permission. Under the relevant sections of the 2015 Public Assembly Act, that could make them liable to a maximum penalty of six months imprisonment and a fine of 10,000 baht ($320).

A spokesperson for the national police force, Lt. Gen. Piya Utayo, told reporters that thousands of books they seized before they could be distributed at the rally would be examined for illegal content. He said police were also looking at video clips of speeches from the rally to determine whether the lese majeste law had been violated.

A well-known royalist activist, Dr. Tul Sitthisomwang, filed a complaint with police that three protest leaders had violated the lese majeste law. Police said they would check the details before they could officially accept it.

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Associated Press writers Busaba Sivasomboon and Grant Peck contributed to this report.

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