Thailand anti-govt protests

Source: By Mehr Gill: The Indian Express

For the last several months, Thailand has been witnessing pro-democracy demonstrations with protesters demanding that the monarchy be reformed and that Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha resign. The current wave of protests is among the biggest seen in recent times.

A Buddhist-majority country of about 70 million, Thailand converted from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy in 1932. Following a coup in 1947, Thailand has been ruled by the military for the most part. Since around 2001, the country’s politics has been marked by a divide between supporters and detractors of populist leader Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted as Prime Minister by the military in 2006 and has been in exile since.

Over the decades, the military has cracked down on dissidents many times. On October 6, 1976, a student-led pro-democracy protest was crushed at Bangkok’s Thammasat University when security forces killed 46 protesters and arrested nearly 3,000 people. In 2010, over 2,000 were arrested and 90 killed in clashes between security forces and anti-government protestors.

The current ruler, Maha Vajiralongkorn, became king in December 2016. Prime Minister Chan-ocha came to power through a coup in 2014, when he seized power from Shinawatra’s sister. Chan-ocha, endorsed by the king, is alleged to have meddled with electoral laws during the 2019 elections, which has enabled him to remain in power.

What are current protests about?

Demonstrations started late last year following the disqualification of opposition politician Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit as a Member of Parliament and a ban on his party Future Forward. Pandemic restrictions led to a pause in protests, which resumed in mid-July when the Free Youth Group led 2,500 demonstrators in Bangkok.

There have three demands: dissolution of Parliament and the PM’s resignation, changes to the Constitution, and an end to harassment of critics. On August 3, human rights lawyer Arnon Nampa made a speech about reforming the monarchy. Nampa and another movement leader, Panupong Jadnok (also known as Mike Rayong), were arrested last week.

Other groups have joined the protests, with broader demands: expanding LGBT and women’s rights, reforms in education and the military, and improvements in the economy. At a demonstration at Thammasat University on August 10, a declaration listed ten demands. These included the king not endorsing further coups, abolition of the Royal Offices, a reduction in the national budget allocated to the king, and amnesty to those prosecuted for criticising the monarchy.

How are these demonstrations different from previous ones?

Traditionally, Thailand’s political divide has been between the “red shirts” (populists and supporters of Shinawatra) and the “yellow shirts (loyalists of the royalty). This time, the protesters are not using these traditional colour codes but have come up with their own symbols to express their ideas and dissent. These include the “anti-coupthree-finger salute from The Hunger Games series, and gestures such as the hands crossed over the chest, and hands pointing above the head. Some of these gestures are the same as those used by pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong.

By criticising the monarchy, which is forbidden under law, the protestors have opened new ground. Under Section 112 of the Criminal Code, whoever “defames insults or threatens the King, the Queen, the Heir-apparent or the Regent, shall be punished with imprisonment of three to fifteen years”.

How has the government responded?

The government has attempted to crack down on what have been peaceful protests so far. On 16 October 2020, water cannons were used to disperse protesters. On 15 October 2020 the authorities imposed a “severe” state of emergency, banning gatherings of five or more people in Bangkok, and also banning the publication of information that could be a threat to national security. The protesters have so far defied the ban and continue to protest in the capital.

Last week, the government blocked access to the website following an online petition calling for the king to be declared persona non grata, the BBC reported. The government also arrested several rally and student leaders and some demonstrators.