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Explainer: Protests in Thailand

On 17 November 2020, Thai police unjustifiably used water cannons and teargas on peaceful protesters outside the country’s parliament, injuring 55 in the process. The actions of the police underpin the increased hostility towards pro-democracy demonstrations from the Thai government.

Thailand is currently experiencing an unprecedented wave of pro-democracy protests, which initially started on university campuses and has now spread across the country.

According to Thai Lawyers for Human Rights, since 18 July 2020 to 10 October 2020 – a period of 85 days:

“A public rally was announced to support this [pro-democracy] political movement a total of at least 246 protests in at least 62 provinces (with an average of 2.9 protests per day, or almost three times a day).”

The seeds of discontent can be traced back to March 2019, when Prayuth Chan-ocha, the former military ruler, was appointed prime minister in an election that many feel was fixed in his favour.

Tensions accelerated at the turn of the year, when the Constitutional Court dissolved Future Forward, a prominent opposition party. The Future Forward party was critical of the Thai army’s influence over politics and particularly appealed to younger voters, the disenfranchisement of so many young voters is largely what paved the way for protests on University campuses around the country.

A bit of background

Prayuth has ruled over Thailand since 2014, when the military took power in a bloodless coup. Following the coup, a military administration suspended the constitution and elected him as prime minister on 21 August 2014, with the backing of Thailand’s powerful monarchy.

Thai politics can fairly be characterised by a cycle of coups and young protesters have adopted the slogan “let it end with our generation”. The election in 2019 was supposed to represent Thailand’s return to democracy but instead saw voting irregularities cementing the military leader’s hold on power.

What are protesters calling for?

Protesters in Thailand, similar to those in Hong Kong and Taiwan, are calling for democracy. While there might be some variations, the demonstrators have three main demands:

  1. The resignation of Prayut Chan-o-cha
  2. Reforms to the constitution allowing for greater democratic participation
  3. Reform of the monarchy to subject it to legal, political, and fiscal oversight – this is the most controversial issue by Thai’ standards.

The open challenge to the role of the monarchy breaks a long-existing taboo in Thai cultural and political life. Self-censorship and Lèse majesté laws have typically meant that concerns over the role of the monarchy were best left to one’s self.

Lèse majesté – a French term which means “to do wrong to majesty” – is criminalised by Section 112 of the Thai Criminal Code. It makes it illegal to defame, insult or threaten members of the monarchy. These laws carry a sentence of up to 15 years, though Prayuth Chan-ocha has previously stated that the king had requested that nobody be prosecuted under the law.

As noted by Dr. Tamara Loos, chair and professor at the Department of History at Cornell University, the fact that the institution of the monarchy is now subject to public debate and discussion is one of the main reasons:

“These peaceful protests differ radically from unrest in the past”

Protesters are not calling for the abolition of the monarchy, but for its modernisation. A recent protest organised by the United Front of Thammasat issued 10 demands for monarchy reform, including: the king’s budget being cut, for a separation of his private funds from the crown assets and for an end to the Lèse majesté laws. The protest was attended by tens of thousands of people.

When current king Maha Vajiralongkorn – who in the opinion of Dr. Tamara Loos “fails to live up to the dignified image and ethical standards of his father” – took the throne in 2016, the palace revised a new constitution, giving him greater emergency powers. The king has since taken personal control over some army units and palace assets worth tens of billions of dollars.

Who is protesting?

In contrast to the colour coded protests in Thailand, which in 2010 saw older generations fill the streets, the majority of today’s protesters are second, middle school, high school and college-age. This has meant that alongside calls for democracy, many are using the opportunity to also lobby for reforms to Thailand’s education system and the countries strict gender conformity,

The youth of the protesters has also increased the role social media has played in demonstrations. As Dr. Tamara Loos explains:

“Social media plays a pronounced role in the demonstrations because these internet platforms are not subject to the same degree of control by the Thai army or government broadcasting authorities, unlike TV and radio. Protesters deftly utilize social media to connect with each other and supporters around the world and enable them to mobilise quickly.”

And it really has drawn support from around the world.

Those similarly protesting for Democracy in Taiwan and Hong Kong have not only expressed their support for the plight of Thai protesters, but young protesters have also opened online channels and shared tactics.

Writing for the Guardian, in an article titled Fighting tyranny with milk tea: the young rebels joining forces in Asia, a trio of authors noted how:

“Tactics adopted from Hong Kong demonstrations have helped the movement survive both the jailing of most of its leaders and direct attempts by the prime minister Prayuth Chan-ocha to ban the demonstrations.”

The reference to milk tea in the article title is a throw to what is now being called the “Milk Tea Alliance”. It refers to the fact that, while milk is drunk differently by the three groups of protesters, just as their individual battles vary, the basic ingredients are the same, just as the protesters’ basic aim of democracy is shared.

A timeline of the protests

While smaller scale protests had bubbled across the country prior to this – and the imposition of a state of emergency to stop the spread of the coronavirus temporarily limited gatherings and travel – the current wave of large-scale protests is generally accepted to have started on 18 July 2020. This is when the Free Youth group drew a crowd of 2,500 to Bangkok with three key demands: dissolve parliament, amend the constitution and stop harassing critics.

It is worth noting that the outbreak of the pandemic only accentuated frustration with the ruling elite. Thailand succeeded in avoiding a major outbreak, but Rebecca Ratcliffe, South-east Asia correspondent for the Guardian reports that:

“The economic impact of the pandemic has been devastating, and has highlighted the country’s yawning gaps in equality.”

Just sixteen days after the Free Youth protest, on 3 August 2020, prominent human rights lawyer Arnon Nampa made the unprecedented first call for curbing the monarchy’s power. This protest was also notable for its Harry Potter theme. Many of the 200 protesters dressed as wizards, with the organisers explaining it as a reference to the increasing injustices under the military-backed government.

This moment carried great significance, as Dr. Tamara Loos notes:

“When human rights lawyer Anon Nampa publicly broached the topic of the monarchy at a rally in August 2020, he unleashed a flood of pent-up criticism.”

Despite protesters stating that abolition is not their aim, anger online increasingly targeted the monarchy, with the hashtag ““#whydoweneedaking?” being shared on social media more than a million times.

In another throw to pop culture, the three finger salute from the Hunger Games – which represents Freedom, liberty and fraternity – has become the symbol of the pro-democracy movement. The story of the Hunger Games main protagonist, Katniss Everdeen, tells of a young girl from a poor district leads a revolution against the rich and powerful establishment, making the appropriation of the symbol appealing for Thai activists.

On 10 August 2020 came the aforementioned Thammasat University protest and the accompanying 10 demands for reforming the monarchy.

The biggest protest since the 2014 coup came on 19 September 2020. The Bangkok protest drew tens of thousands, with older protesters from the “redshirts” group – which was at the forefront of protests against the Thai government in 2010 – joining the student-led movement. Organisers have said 50,000 people attended the protest, with police saying there were at least 18,000.

Speaking at the protest, Parit Chiwarak, one of the prominent protest leaders, also known by the nickname Penguin, said:

“Today is a historic moment. No matter what happens, I can confirm that Thailand will never be the same again tomorrow,”

Authorities responded by charging student leaders with sedition, ordering Facebook to censor content critical of the royal family and instructing universities to stop young protesters from demanding changes to the monarchy.

At the time of the protest, Parit Chiwarak told the Guardian he already faced 18 charges for his involvement in recent demonstrations.

24 September 2020

Just days after the biggest protest in years, Thailand’s parliament voted to delay a vote on constitutional reform until November.

Rather than vote on the amendment, government lawmakers established a committee to study the process of the constitutional amendment prior to any vote.

More than a thousand protesters congregated outside the building and did not welcome the delay. Leading Anon Nampa to state:

“Do you hear the people? Or is the building so thick?”

The crackdown

At this stage I would like to delineate some personal memories.

On 20 May 2020, the day Thailand’s military declared martial law, I approached a street in the Thai capital that was blocked off with sandbags and guarded by two men with machine guns that smiled at me when I walked through the guarded area and into the protest.

I think it is hard to overstate just how peaceful this peaceful protest was. There were sections committed to tents in which protesters rested, life sized plastic statues of prominent protest leaders, food and protest clothing sold from stalls and people sitting on carpeted roads listening fervidly to speakers on a makeshift stage.

I was in awe at how markedly different this scene was to protests I’d been on back in the UK, such as the youth-led 2010 protest against tuition fees which was marred by violence both by the police and the protesters.

Two days later, the government had been toppled in a coup that saw not a single drop of blood shed. Regardless of the politics of the situation, it is quite a remarkable feat.

Today’s pro-democracy groups have by and large kept true to the peaceful nature of protesting I witnessed first-hand – on 22 October Prayut Chan-o-cha lifted the state of emergency after failing to portray protesters as violent.

As Dr. Tamara Loos notes:

“Their protests are peaceful and inclusive and their demands are for reform, not abolition, of the monarchy. For these reasons, the cost of committing violence against them is high and could lead to de-legitimation of the monarchy and military.”

While authorities have largely succeeded in avoiding violence, protesters have increasingly been subjected to a heavy-handed crackdown in other ways. Thai Lawyers for Human Rights at least 90 people currently face illegal assembly charges in relation to peaceful protests, with authorities using the “law” as a tool to suppress political expression.

The International Covenant on Civil Society and Political Rights, which Thailand ratified in 1996, protects the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly. However, Human Right Watch note that:

“Thai authorities have routinely enforced censorship and stifled public discussions about human rights, political reforms, and the monarchy’s role in society.”

Thai Lawyers for Human Rights also report that at least 145 protesters have been:

“threatened by government officials to their homes, schools, or phone calls… [with some people] being followed by staff on a number of occasions.”

Ahead of the mass rally on 19 September 2020, at least 23 protest leaders had their homes raided in various areas of the country.

This week, we have seen unprecedented violence and the government risks pursuing these same tactics in the coming months then protesters might look to other ways of getting themselves heard. As Brad Adams, Asia director of Human Rights Watch says:

“The Thai government should end the police crackdown on peaceful demonstrations or risk further unnecessary violence…Concerned governments and the United Nations should publicly urge the Thai government to end its political repression and instead engage in dialogue on democratic reforms.”

In June 2020, it was reported that pro-democracy activist Wanchalearm Satsaksi had been abducted in Cambodia. It is believed he is the ninth exiled activist to disappear since the 2014 Coup. The government and military have denied involvement but some respected journalist Andrew MacGregor Marshall, allege Wanchalearm’s abduction was ordered by Thai King Vajiralongkorn himself and overseen by his security chief, Jakrapob Bhuridej.

Enforced disappearances in Southeast Asia are becoming increasingly common, with many believing that oppressive governments coordinate between themselves. Writing for the Diplomat, David Hutt said:

“It isn’t just that, by themselves, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand are ruled by oppressive governments. They now also engage in reciprocity of repression, tracking down the dissidents of other regimes that have fled and, some claim, turning a blind eye as agents of other states enter their country to hunt down exiled activists.”

Perhaps the greatest threat of violence in Thailand comes from Royalist counter-protesters – known as “yellow shirts”. In October, a small counter protest in Bangkok turned violent when a few attendees attacked student demonstrators.

Paul Chambers, lecturer and advisor at Naresuan University’s Center of ASEAN Community Studies has said:

“These peaceful protests are going to continue, try to continue on. However, there’s going to be some right-wing counter-protesters who I expect are going to try to create some violence, which could lead to some injuries and deaths and eventually, even potentially a military coup,”

Chambers went on to explain that if clashes between pro-democracy protesters and royalists grew, the military would have the “perfect rationale” to intervene, putting an end to any illusions of democracy.

One would hope that in the face of growing violence, the Royal family calls for royalists supporters to conduct in the same peaceful manner as their counterparts.

17 – 18 November 2020

As mentioned at the start of this article on 17 November 2020, the capital had experienced the most violent protest in years, leaving at least 55 people injured according to Bangkok’s Erawan emergency medical centre.

Five people were treated for gunshot wounds, including at least two students.

Crowds gathered outside the Thai parliament building ahead of the delayed September vote on constitutional reform. The parliament building had been blocked off with razor wire and concrete.

Conflict broke out between royalists, who wore yellow shirts, and pro-democracy protesters during the afternoon. This was the first major clash between the royalists and the student-led movement.

On 18 November 2020, in a blow to the pro-democracy groups, Thailand’s parliament rejected the constitutional amendment reducing the powers of the monarchy. Instead, a “charter rewriting committee” was established that would skip any review of chapters governing the monarchy. Aware of the controversial decision, several MPs and senators left parliament on boats from a pier behind the building.

Much like the protests mirrored in Hong-Kong, it appears the pro-democracy movement of Thailand faces a prolonged struggle under increasing hostility from those in power. The royal palace has said of protesters “we love them all the same” and that Thailand is the “land of compromise”, yet he has been slow to condemn the growing violence displayed by his supporters. One would hope that he is as good as his word, but that remains to be seen.

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