Pro-democracy protests in Thailand
Thousands of young people in Thailand are defying the authorities by gathering in the streets and calling for 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.
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 – re-installed as prime minister.
Sequence of events
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.
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.
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 voices of the next generation
The protest leaders have been careful to frame their demands within the constitution. The first person to break the taboo, a week before the Thammasat manifesto, was human rights lawyer Anon Nampa, speaking at a Harry Potter-themed protest and looking not unlike the fictional young wizard.
But far from silencing talk about the monarchy, their demands have now been taken up by a student movement which has been agitating for change for many months, and which is active in campuses across the country, and includes high-school students as well.
External hand Theory
The students have been accused of “crossing the line”, of going too far, even by some of those who support their other demands for reform. Senators appointed by the former military junta, and an important political crutch for the government of junta-leader-turned-Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, have called for legal action against the student leaders, for an investigation into how they funded Monday’s spectacularly-produced protest, and into which “dark hand” instigated the youngsters to come up with such outrageous demands.
Worryingly, some ultra-royalists are raising the spectre of October 1976, when police and right-wing vigilantes opened fire on left-wing students inside Thammasat University, killing dozens, lynching some and then battering their bodies.
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.
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