On Saturday in Bangkok, Thailand, tens of thousands took part in ongoing pro-democracy protests following a government crackdown on Friday, which saw riot police launch water cannons containing a chemical irritant on the crowd demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha.
Protests against the prime minister began in March of this year, following the dissolution of a pro-democracy popular party, but this week has increased significantly in size, with crowds of tens of thousands.
The government responded to these growing protests on Thursday with an emergency decree, which banned groups of more than five people and gave the police the authority to make areas of Bangkok off-limits to protesters. Along with this new measure came the arrests of protesters, including a human rights lawyer and several student activists.
Protesters issued several requests, the main one including the resignation of the prime minister. A former general, Prayuth seized power in a 201
As reported by Panu Wongcha-um for Reuters, protesters made three demands in July: “the dissolution of parliament, an end to harassment of government critics and amendments to the constitution written by the military.”
Protesters are still working to achieve these goals, but increasingly, protesters are calling for changes to the country’s monarchy as well.
As Richard Bernstein explained for Vox, Thai citizens have traditionally avoided statements that could be seen as criticism of the royal family, which is currently led by King Maha Vajiralongkorn, due to the country’s lese-majesty laws, which prohibit defamation. , insult or threaten “a member of the royal family”.
That changed: for example, in an August protest, a student protest leader gave a speech accusing the government of “deceiving us by saying that people born into the royal family are embodiments of gods and angels” and asking, “Are you sure that do angels or gods have this personality type? “
The king, who took the throne four years ago, rules largely from Europe but has nonetheless extravagantly spent and “steadily accumulated power” in a way reminiscent of the bygone days of Thailand’s absolute monarchy, according to the Economist. His support for the prime minister frustrated Prayuth’s critics, and his successful efforts to bring royal wealth and military forces under his direct control have led some protesters to demand new limits on the monarchy’s powers.
Arrests continued for violating the country’s lese majesty laws and on Friday two protesters were charged under a dark law for “an act of violence against the queen’s freedom”, in this case for shouting at the parade of the queen Suthida Vajiralongkorn Na Ayudhya. The two protesters face a potential life sentence for “endangering the royal family”.
These accusations – as well as the prime minister’s threats – did not deter the protesters. After the police offensive on Friday, the demonstrations that continued on Saturday appear to have remained largely peaceful – and have had good attendance despite the disruption of public transport in Bangkok. According to a police estimate reported by the Bangkok Post, as many as 23,000 people showed up in different locations in the city.
“The goal is to change the entire political system, including the monarchy and the prime minister,” a student from Bangkok told the New York Times.
A crisis of democratic legitimacy
As Vox’s Zeeshan Aleem explained in August, the Thai protests depend on the tenuous legitimacy of the current government.
Although current Prime Minister Prayuth apparently won another term in 2019, the results of that election are contested. Since then, a major opposition party has been dissolved by the courts and pro-democracy activist Wanchalearm Satsaksit has been reported missing in Cambodia, possibly taken by order of the Thai government.
Wanchalearm has not been seen since his kidnapping in June, and Jakrapob Penkair, another dissident living in exile, told the BBC in July that Wanchalearm, also known as Tar, was likely dead.
“I think the message is: ‘Let’s kill these people. These are strangers, these are people who are different from us and they should be killed to bring Thailand back to normal,” Jakrapob said. “But nothing could be more wrong with this interpretation. I believe their decision to kidnap and kill Tar, and others before him, has unconsciously radicalized people. “
The protest movement was fueled by student activism but lacks defined leadership, according to the BBC. This is expected: Activists would draw inspiration from decentralized pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong to maintain momentum during arrests.
In part to circumvent speech restrictions, activists also relied on pop culture symbolism during the protests. According to Aleem,
Protesters used creative methods drawn from the world of popular fiction to hide their criticisms of the government and mitigate allegations of violating restrictions on political discourse. For example, some protesters disguised themselves as Harry Potter characters to push forward their arguments against the government and the monarchy. Other pro-democracy protesters show three-finger greetings inspired by the Hunger games series.
The crackdown on protesters by the Thai government has been condemned by multiple international organizations. Human Rights Watch, for example, argued that the ban on protests, as well as other new restrictions, meant that “the rights to free speech and the holding of peaceful public assemblies are on the block of a government that is now showing its true dictatorism nature. ” Amnesty International condemned the arrests of protesters as a scare tactic.
However, the protest movement is unlikely to stop anytime soon, even as the government’s response begins to echo the violent anti-protest crackdowns Bangkok saw in the 1970s.
“The dictatorship must be faced by the people, even under the threat of arrest,” activist Panupong Jadnok told the Washington Post. “We will not take a step back. We will fight to the death.”
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