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

A few dozen Thai royalists held a rally in Bangkok in the face of protests against the government and the monarchy that have drawn tens of thousands of people to the streets in defiance of an official ban.

Protest groups also urged supporters to demonstrate for a seventh day by gathering.

The royalists said they had no problem with protesters calling for the removal of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha - a former military ruler - but they should not touch on King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

“I beg you, do what you will, but do not touch the monarchy,” one of the royalists, Sirimongkol Ruampan, 24, told Reuters. “I don’t believe in violence. I beg again, don’t bring the monarchy into politics.”

Royalists, most of whom wore yellow, the king’s colour, said their gathering was not political and so not subject to the ban on gatherings of more than five people imposed by the government last week.

Police spokesman Yingyos Thepjumnong told reporters that all groups would be treated the same.

“We are ready for big surprises every day,” he said. “We need to balance law enforcement with social peace and safety, no matter at whose gatherings.”

Pro-royalist groups took to social media using a hashtag that translates as #WeLoveTheMonarchy to proclaim their loyalty, but it was hijacked by supporters of the protests posting anti-royalist messages.

After these present-day historic protests, there are a no. of possibilities that can take place over the course of time; Philip J. Heijmans names those possibilities:

Now the military and royalist elite who have long held power in Thailand must decide whether to meet some or all protest demands or take more aggressive steps to shut down the demonstrations.

Here are possible scenarios for where things go from here:

1. Slow-Walking Reform

One key demand is a new constitution to replace the one drafted after a 2014 coup led by Prayuth. Its provision for a military-appointed Senate has been instrumental in helping him retain power following last year’s election.

Prayuth’s government has already said it’s open to certain unspecified changes, and prior to Monday’s special parliamentary session it already initiated a process to begin amending the constitution. Still, that process could end up taking years, and it wouldn’t be the first time: Following the bloody ‘Black May’ uprising against military rule in 1992, it took five years before a new constitution was put in place. And that was nullified in a coup less than a decade later.

“The regime could be looking at the same kind of tactics this time around,” said Kevin Hewison, an emeritus professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who has researched Thai politics for decades. They could “drag it out for so long, but eventually don’t make many changes at all.”

2. Prayuth’s Ouster

Calls for Prayuth’s resignation have persisted since last year’s election. While he has so far refused to step down, his rule is contingent on the support of the monarchy and other elites in Bangkok. If protests were to garner wider support from the general population, his ouster may be the easiest way to try and soothe tensions.

Prayuth’s future is now firmly tied to the challenges to the monarchy, said Lee Morgenbesser, a lecturer at Australia’s Griffith University whose research focuses on authoritarian regimes and Southeast Asian politics. “If the protests persist too long or become violent, which would see the prestige of the king further questioned, the Thai government is an obvious sacrificial lamb.”

Having already survived a no-confidence vote in February, the government isn’t likely to face much pressure in parliament. Still, even if Prayuth were to step aside, he could just be replaced by someone else backed by the military.

3. Violent Crackdown

Past protest movements in Thailand have often ended in bloody crackdowns, most recently in 2010. With groups of royalists organizing to confront the pro-democracy demonstrators, there are concerns they could happen again at some point — even if the threat isn’t imminent.

“There can always be a violent crackdown,” said Paul Chambers, a Thai politics expert at Naresuan University’s College of Asean Community Studies, adding that such a move could backfire on authorities. The government would “do so only because it is desperate for the survival of military and royal privileges unreformed.”

4. Monarchy Changes

After breaking long-held taboos about publicly criticizing the royal family, protesters are demanding the monarch no longer endorse coups, provide transparency in managing billions of dollars’ worth of crown assets, and get rid of defamation laws that stifle discussion of the royal family.

Any of those changes would require approval from King Maha Vajiralongkorn, which analysts say is a long shot.

“Royal abdication scaled back authority for the crown are highly unlikely anytime soon,” said Chambers. “After all, Thailand’s military, political and economic elites ascribe their legitimacy to close linkages to the palace. A weakening of palace power weakens the power of all of Thailand’s vested power players.” – Bloomberg

In recent months, small ‘flash mob’ type protests that are easy to organise and can quickly disperse have been mobilised in smaller cities, driven by social media.

And now, people of all ages, from all parts of the country - aside from die-hard royalists appear to agree with the student leaders that the monarchy is fair game in any overhaul of Thailand's institutions, says the BBC's Jonathan Head.

It is only a matter of time before we see more of these protests in Thailand. Whether the demonstrations will have enough of an impact to force constitutional change remains to be seen.

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