Thailand’s Pro-Democracy Protests Against the Monarchy

Thailand’s Pro-Democracy Protests Against the Monarchy
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Thousands of young people in Thailand are defying the authorities by gathering in the streets and calling for a change in some of the biggest pro-democracy protests the country has seen in years.

An emergency decree banning such rallies was issued by the government in an attempt to clamp down on the largely peaceful demonstrations that have also targeted the monarchy.

Despite this, the student-led democracy movement continues to march, leading to numerous arrests.

The growing pro-democracy movement has been calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha - the former army chief who seized power in a 2014 coup and was later appointed as premier after controversial elections last year.

Disillusioned by years of military rule, protesters are demanding amendments to the constitution, a new election, and an end to the harassment of rights activists and state critics.

They are also calling for curbs on the king's powers - a demand that has led to unprecedented public discussion of an institution long shielded from criticism by law.

Thailand's lese-majeste law, which forbids insults to the monarchy, is among the strictest in the world. Those found guilty of breaching it face up to 15 years in jail. Critics say it is used to suppress free speech.

In an attempt to "maintain peace and order", the Thai government has issued an emergency decree banning large gatherings, limiting groups to a maximum of four people.

But protesters have since been marching against the ban, with hundreds taking to the streets of the capital Bangkok. Some have been targeting the prime minister's office, and the government has responded by deploying riot police.

The students risking it all to challenge the monarchy

Among those arrested in the latest demonstrations are three protest leaders - the human rights lawyer Anon Nampa, student activist Parit Chiwarak, widely known by his nickname "Penguin", and Panusaya Sithijirawattanakul.

Mr. Anon, 36, was the first to openly break the taboo on discussing Thailand's monarchy by calling for reforms in August. Ms. Panusaya became one of the most prominent faces of the protests after she delivered a 10-point manifesto urging royal reform later that month.

Thai human rights lawyer Anon Nampa (with the microphone), flanked by Panusaya Sithijirawattanakul (L) and Parit Chiwarak (R)

The two men have been arrested before. But Ms. Panusaya, 21, had not been arrested until now. She was taken away in a wheelchair while giving a three-finger salute.

The three-fingered salute is a gesture taken from the Hunger Games film franchise, where it is a rousing symbol of defiance against an authoritarian state.

Unlike previous conflicts between the Red and Yellow shirts - supporters of opposing political factions in Thailand - this conflict is between older and younger generations.

How did it all start?

Thailand has a long history of political unrest and protest, but a new wave began in February after a popular opposition political party was ordered to dissolve.

It followed elections in March last year - the first since the military seized power in 2014. For many young people and first-time voters, it was seen as a chance for change after years of military rule.

But the military had taken steps to entrench its political role, and the election saw Prayuth Chan-ocha - the military leader who led the coup - reinstalled as prime minister.

Prayuth Chan-ocha: Thailand's face of hybrid democracy

The pro-democracy Future Forward Party (FFP), with its charismatic leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, garnered the third-largest share of seats and was particularly popular with young, first-time voters.

But in February, a court ruled the FFP had received a loan from Thanathorn which was deemed a donation - thus making it illegal and the party was forced to disband.

Thai pro-democracy party dissolved over loan

Thousands then participated in street protests. However, these were then halted by Covid-19 restrictions, technically banning the gatherings under Thailand's coronavirus state of emergency - breaking the ban carried a possible two-year prison sentence.

But things heated up again in June when a prominent pro-democracy activist went missing.

Wanchalearm Satsaksit, who had been living in Cambodia in exile since 2014, was reportedly grabbed off the street and bundled off into a vehicle.

Protesters accused the Thai state of orchestrating his kidnapping, which the police and government have denied.

In recent months they have widened to call for curbs on the powers of King Vajiralongkorn, who now spends most of his time abroad.

The protesters have challenged the king's decision to declare Crown wealth as his personal property, making him by far the wealthiest person in Thailand. It had until now been notionally held in trust for the benefit of the people.

There have also been questions over his decision to take personal command of all military units based in Bangkok - a concentration of military power in royal hands unprecedented in modern Thailand.

The movement's ability to continue to amass the large-scale rallies seen in recent months will be difficult following the crackdown on public gatherings, especially with some high-profile campaigners detained outside Bangkok.

However, at least one student leader has vowed that the demonstrations will continue. In footage shared widely on social media, Ms. Panusaya said the government's emergency measures should be ignored.

Elections in Thailand have been routinely punctuated by military coups much like neighbouring Pakistan. However, despite this political instability, the government doesn’t collapse and manages to do better than other Asian nations on several development indices.

The first military coup in Thailand took place in 1932, birthing a modern nation-state called Siam. Since then, there have been over 20 military coups in Thailand’s history.

The current monarch, Maha Vajiralongkorn, is the tenth in the Chakri dynasty to take the throne. Also known as Rama 10, he took the throne at age 64, shortly after the death of his father, Rama 9, who ruled for 17 years.

Between 1932 and 2020, Thailand has only seen three monarchs- Ramas 8, 9, and 10.

For generations, the monarchy and military have had a “very comfortable, smug arrangement” whereby they share power “by keeping a bonzai elected government every now and then, then firing them and and finding somebody else,” said Gupta.

He drew a timeline of elections and military coups that have occurred so far- all of them bloodless, with the exception of a king who died mysteriously in 1946.

The 17th coup since 1932 took place in 1991, and within 10 years, the government changed six times, putting into power Prime Ministers Anand Panyarachun (1992), Chuan Leekpai (1992-1995), Banharn Silpa-archa (1995-1996), Chavalit Yongchaiyudh (1996-1997), Leekpai again (1997 – 2001), before Thaksin Shinawatra was elected in 2001.

Shinawatra was a populist leader who upset the “smug balance” between the military and monarchy, but survived for five years till 2006, before another palace-backed military coup installed an Army Chief General. Shinawatra’s rule was significant, Gupta said, since he was Thailand’s first and last “genuinely popular leader” among the working classes.

After more elections, Shinawatra supporters, all wearing red shirts symbolising the working classes, took to the streets in 2010. They were opposed by the ‘yellow shirts’, the more urban supporters of the status quo.

“This became quite uncomfortable for the powers that be. It is then that force was used against these public demonstrators. The army stormed their processions and 91 people were killed,” Gupta said.

Shinawatra’s younger sister won the 2011 election but was fired by a constitutional court and later sent to exile in 2014.

The Thai Royalist Counter Protests