Thousands of pro-democracy demonstrators flooded a Bangkok intersection late Friday, vowing to resist any attempts at a coup amid rumors of a coming military intervention to break a deadlock between the vibrant reform movement and a stubborn royalist government.
Thailand has had 13 coups since a 1932 revolution established a constitutional monarchy, led by an army which refuses to leave the political stage - or allow full democracy to take root - and whose actions are endorsed by a palace which is at the pinnacle of power.
The last coup, in 2014, was led by Prayuth Chan-O-Cha, the then army chief who transformed into a civilian premier after elections last year under rules heavily favoring the military-aligned party he leads.
But after six years in power Prayuth is on the ropes, his name denigrated nightly on the streets by protesters who are demanding his resignation, the drafting of a new constitution and - most significantly - reform of the monarchy.
With the government refusing to cede ground and a rising threat of clashes between pro-democrats and pro-monarchists, experts say dangerous days lie ahead for Thailand.
That has stirred speculation that Prayuth could soon be removed from power by the courts or an army faction called in to smother the protests with martial law.
On Friday at the ‘rehearsal against the coup’ protest, rally-goers said they feared the only way for the establishment to mute their calls for palace reform was a coup.
"The government is ready to stage a coup, they're waiting for the last straw,” said Banlue, aged 45, giving one name only like many of the wary protesters.
The movement has been broadly peaceful, but dozens of people were injured in clashes earlier this month between young demonstrators and ‘yellow shirt’ loyalists to King Maha Vajiralongkorn, who insist the monarchy must remain off-limits.
"I'm only 17 and I've seen two coups already,” said protester Teeramet, as the normally busy intersection assumed a festival feel with music, food and political speeches - accompanied by inflatable rubber ducks, the latest fun protest emblem.
“This is Thailand, the land of the wicked coup cycle," he added.
The new Thai army chief has a reputation as a royalist hardliner, feeding speculation he could lead a takeover to silence protests which now openly mock the king and flout a strict royal defamation law.
Dismissing the speculation, Army Chief Narongphan Jitkaewtae told reporters to stop using the term “coup d’état.”
“There is always a way out, we just need to see what it is,” he said.
But in a country notorious for its sudden power plays at times of political crisis, few on the streets believe him.
“Thailand's coups are never about keeping peace and order. They are about how long can they (the army) hold onto power,” said Knot, 27, as protesters unfurled a vast banner depicting the faces of the 13 army chiefs who have staged coups in the last 10 decades.
The protesters’ calls for reform have become focused on King Vajiralongkorn, whom they accuse of being profligate with billions of dollars of public money. He is renowned for his lavish lifestyle, including ownership of a fleet of jets for travel to his overseas home in Germany.
On Wednesday they massed at the Siam Commercial Bank to demand that the king return “the people’s wealth” from an institution in which the king is the largest shareholder, with a personal stake amounting to around $2.3 billion.
Crucially, they accuse the palace of pulling the strings of government through the army and its political proxies and demand that the king’s powers be constrained by the constitution.
King Vajiralongkorn, long known for his for aloofness and distance from his subjects, has tried to reclaim the initiative with near-nightly walkabouts among his adoring royalist supporters which have been broadcast on television.
In a late October meet-and-greet, he spoke to a royalist who had confronted the protesters, saying, “Very brave, good job, thank you.” A video clip of the exchange went viral and was seen as an endorsement of the yellow shirts, who have been mobilizing in rival rallies.
But the king has not addressed the demands of the pro-democracy movement directly.
Instead insults aimed at the monarchy have mounted as a young, social media-savvy generation rides roughshod over Thailand’s stiff social hierarchy, which they accuse of embedding inequality and forcing obedience rather than critical thinking.
Graffiti, banners and speeches flout the once-feared royal defamation law - known as ‘112’ - which provides for up to 15 years in jail for every charge of insulting, threatening or defaming the monarchy.
At least a dozen protest leaders faced police action under 112 as the government this week used the law to try to quash the growing anti-monarchy sentiment. But it appeared to have a limited immediate effect.
Activist Jatupat Boonpattararaksa, jailed in 2017 for two years and six months for lese majeste after sharing an unflattering article about the monarch over Facebook, said he had again been charged under the law.
"I got 112'd for the second time under Rama X,” he posted defiantly on Facebook, referring to the king’s dynastic title without detailing the allegation against him. “Very brave, good job, thank you."