BANGKOK -- Thousands of demonstrators defied police warnings and occupied a historic field in Thailand's capital on Saturday to support the demands of a student-led protest movement for new elections and changes in the monarchy.
A fiery late-night speech with harsh criticisms of the royal institution set the crowd abuzz, even though the country has a law that mandates a three- to 15-year prison term for defaming the monarchy.
The speaker, Arnon Nampha, is a lawyer who broke the taboo on criticism of the monarchy ahead of the pack at a small rally in early August with some mild questions about the institution.
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He recalled Saturday night how the crowd went silent on that occasion, and he compared its reaction to the much more enthusiastic reception he is now receiving for significantly more strident remarks.
The protesters have more activities planned for today. They have been purposely vague about a planned march, but Arnon revealed in his speech that the protesters would lay down a plaque dedicated to the power of the people.
Organizers had predicted that as many as 50,000 people would take part in the weekend's protest. Estimates of attendance at mass political events in Thailand are notoriously unreliable, but Saturday's crowd appeared as big as any protest held at that venue in the past three decades. Associated Press reporters estimated around 20,000 people were present by early evening, while people were still arriving.
As the night progressed, there were skits, music and speakers on the stage. They touched on issues including the alleged incompetence of the government, corruption in the military and women's rights.
The Grand Palace complex shined behind the side of the field opposite from the stage.
"The people who came here today came here peacefully and are really calling for democracy," said Panupong Jadnok, one of the protest leaders.
At least 8,000 police officers reportedly were deployed for the event, which attracted the usual scores of food and souvenir vendors.
The core demands declared by the protesters in July were the dissolution of parliament with fresh elections, a new constitution and an end to intimidation of political activists. They have held a series of rallies since then.
They believe that Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, who as then-army commander led a 2014 coup toppling an elected government, was returned to power unfairly in last year's general election because the laws had been changed to favor a pro-military party. A constitution promulgated under military rule is likewise undemocratic, they say.
The activists raised the stakes dramatically at an Aug. 10 rally by issuing a 10-point manifesto calling for changes in the monarchy. Their demands seek to limit the king's powers, establish tighter controls on palace finances and allow open discussion of the monarchy. Their boldness was virtually unprecedented, as the monarchy is considered sacrosanct in Thailand.
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The students are too young to have been caught up in the sometimes violent partisan political battles that roiled Thailand a decade ago, Kevin Hewison, a University of North Carolina professor emeritus and a veteran Thai studies scholar, said in an email interview.
"This is why they look and act differently and why they are so confounding for the regime," Hewison said. "What the regime and its supporters see is relatively well-off kids turned against them, and this confounds them."