Thai protesters push on despite charges of royal defamation

Thai protesters push on despite charges of royal defamation
Thailand’s protest leaders remain defiant even after being told they were facing lese majeste charges. (AP)
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Updated 25 November 2020

Thai protesters push on despite charges of royal defamation

Thai protesters push on despite charges of royal defamation
  • The protesters want the monarchy reformed to be made more accountable
  • Protest leaders remained defiant even after being told they were facing lese majeste charges

BANGKOK: Pro-democracy demonstrators in Thailand on Wednesday again took to the streets of the capital, even as the government escalated its legal battle against them, reviving the use of a harsh law against defaming the monarchy.
On Tuesday, police had issued summonses for 12 protest leaders to answer charges of lese majeste, defaming or insulting key members of the royal family. The offense is punishable by up to 15 years in prison. Most of the protest leaders are already facing multiple charges, ranging from blocking traffic to sedition.
The lese majeste law is controversial, because anyone — not just royals or authorities — can lodge a complaint, so it had in the past been used as a weapon in political vendettas. But it has not been employed for the past three years, after King Maha Vajiralongkorn informed the government that he did not wish to see its use. The king has not publicly commented on the law since then.
The protesters want the monarchy reformed to be made more accountable. They also want Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha and his government to step down, and for the constitution, which was implemented under a military government, to be amended to make it more democratic.
Several of the leaders wanted by the police were present Wednesday as protesters gathered in a carnival-like atmosphere next to a bank controlled by the country’s royal family. By dusk, several thousand had gathered peacefully.
Many in the months-long student-led protest movement believe the monarchy holds too much power for a constitutional monarchy. But their challenge is fiercely opposed by royalists, including the army, who consider the royal institution an untouchable bedrock of national identity.
Food and souvenir vendors set up tables along a long stretch of sidewalk along the rim of a park-like compound occupied by the headquarters of the Siam Commercial Bank. Accessories featuring the image of a yellow rubber duck, a movement icon, could be seen almost everywhere.
The ducks became a symbol of resistance last week when human-size inflatable ducks were brought to a rally outside Parliament and satirically dubbed the protesters’ navy. When police turned water cannons on them, the ducks served as makeshift shields.
At a park in another part of Bangkok, hundreds of supporters of the monarchy gathered for a scheduled appearance by the king. He and Queen Suthida in the past month have been doing street tours where members of the public can see them face to face, an evident attempt to shore up support for the royal institution.
The venue for Wednesday’s pro-democracy rally was changed late Tuesday night by the protesters. It was earlier announced that it would be held outside the offices of the Crown Property Bureau, which manages the fortune controlled by the king, estimated to be worth more than $40 billion.
The target was switched to the head office of the Siam Commercial Bank, a publicly held company in which the king is the biggest shareholder. The bank’s headquarters are in a different area of Bangkok, far from the district hosting the Crown Property Bureau and other royal and government offices.
The protest movement announced that the change of venue was to avoid a confrontation with police and royalist counter demonstrators, which they said they feared could trigger a declaration of martial law or a coup by the military.
Barbed wire had already been installed around the Crown Property Bureau offices and the government had declared a no-go zone of 150 meters (500 feet) around the property. Massive shipping containers were also deployed by cranes to block off streets.
A protest rally outside Parliament last week turned chaotic, as police fired water cannons and tear gas at the protesters. At least 55 people were hurt, including six reported to have had gunshot wounds. Police denied firing live rounds or rubber bullets.
The next day, several thousand demonstrators gathered outside the national headquarters of the police in central Bangkok to protest the force used against them. That rally was nonviolent but fueled royalist outrage at the protest movement, as demonstrators defaced the “Royal Thai Police” sign outside its headquarters and scrawled graffiti and chanted slogans that could be considered derogatory of King Vajiralongkorn.
Protest leaders remained defiant even after being told they were facing lese majeste charges. They declared they would have four more straight days of rallies to pressure the government.
One of them, Parit “Penguin” Chiwarak, posted his response to his summons on Twitter, saying: “I am not afraid anymore. The ceiling (of our demands) is destroyed. Nobody can stop us now.”
A statement issued Wednesday by Free Youth, the driving force in the coalition of protest groups, called Thailand a failed state whose people “are ruled by capitalists, military and feudalists.”
“And under this state, the ruling class oppress the people who are the true founders and heirs of this country, not any great king,” said the statement, the most strident issued so far in the name of the group.


Richard Branson’s Virgin Orbit reaches space on 2nd try

Richard Branson’s Virgin Orbit reaches space on 2nd try
A view of Richard Branson's Virgin Orbit, with a rocket underneath the wing of a modified Boeing 747 jetliner, during test launch of its high-altitude launch system for satellites from Mojave, California, U.S. January 17, 2021. (REUTERS)
Updated 18 January 2021

Richard Branson’s Virgin Orbit reaches space on 2nd try

Richard Branson’s Virgin Orbit reaches space on 2nd try
  • The rocket’s upper stage coasted for a period, reignited to circularize the orbit and then deployed the nine CubeSats

LOS ANGELES: Richard Branson’s Virgin Orbit reached space on Sunday, eight months after the first demonstration flight of its air-launched rocket system failed, the company said.
A 70-foot-long (21.34-meter-long) LauncherOne rocket was released from beneath the wing of a Boeing 747 carrier aircraft off the coast of Southern California, ignited moments later and soared toward space.
The two-stage rocket carried a cluster of very small satellites known as CubeSats developed and built as part of a NASA educational program involving US universities.
The launch occurred after the Boeing 747-400 took off from Mojave Air and Space Port in the desert north of Los Angeles and flew out over the Pacific Ocean to a drop point beyond the Channel Islands.
“According to telemetry, LauncherOne has reached orbit!” Virgin Orbit tweeted later. “Everyone on the team who is not in mission control right now is going absolutely bonkers.”
The rocket’s upper stage coasted for a period, reignited to circularize the orbit and then deployed the nine CubeSats.
The flight developments were announced on social media. The launch was not publicly livestreamed.
Virgin Orbit, based in Long Beach, California, is part of a wave of companies targeting the launch market for increasingly capable small satellites, which may range in sizes comparable to a toaster on up to a home refrigerator.
Competitor Rocket Lab, also headquartered in Long Beach, has deployed 96 payloads in 17 launches of its Electron rocket from a site in New Zealand. Another of its rockets was nearing launch Sunday.
Virgin Orbit touts the flexibility of its capability to begin its missions by using airports around the globe.
Virgin Orbit attempted its first demonstration launch in May 2020.
The rocket was released and ignited but only briefly flew under power before it stopped thrusting. The lost payload was only a test satellite.
The company later said an investigation determined there was a breach in a high-pressure line carrying cryogenic liquid oxygen to the first-stage combustion chamber.
Virgin Orbit is separate from Virgin Galactic, the company founded by Branson to carry passengers on suborbital hops in which they will experience the sensations and sights of spaceflight.
Virgin Galactic expects to begin commercial operations this year in southern New Mexico.