In Bangkok, Thailand, on Saturday, tens of thousands took part in continued democracy protests following a government breakdown on Friday, in which riot police released water cannons containing a chemical irritant on the crowds calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha.
Protests against the Prime Minister began in March this year after the dissolution of a popular Democratic party, but have increased dramatically in size this week with crowds numbering in the tens of thousands.
The government responded to these growing protests with an emergency decision on Thursday banning groups of more than five people and giving police authority to make areas in Bangkok outside the borders of protesters. Along with this new measure, arrests of protesters have been arrested, including a human rights lawyer and several student activists.
Protesters have released several demands, including among them that the prime minister resign. A former general, Prayuth seized power in a military coup in 201
As Panu Wongcha-um reported to Reuters, protesters made three demands in July: “the dissolution of parliament, an end to harassment by government critics and changes to the military-written constitution.”
Protesters are still working towards these goals, but increasingly, protesters are also demanding changes in the country’s monarchy.
As Richard Bernstein has explained to Vox, citizens of Thailand have traditionally avoided statements that could be seen as critical of the royal family, currently led by King Maha Vajiralongkorn, due to the country’s ‘lèse-majesté laws prohibiting’ defamation , insulting or threatening to a member of the royal family. ”
That has changed: For example, a student protest leader at a protest in August gave a speech accusing the government of “fooling us by saying that people born in the royal family are incarnations of gods and angels” and asked, “Are you sure angels or gods have this kind of personality? ”
The king, who ascended the throne four years ago, rules largely from Europe, but has nonetheless used extravagant and “steadily united power” in a way that goes back to the bygone days of Thailand’s absolute monarchy, according to the Economist. His support for the Prime Minister has frustrated Prayuth’s critics, and his successful efforts to bring royal prosperity and military forces under his direct control have led some protesters to push for new frontiers of the monarchy’s powers.
Arrests for violations of the country’s lèse-majesté laws have continued, and on Friday two protesters were charged under a vague law of “an act of violence against the queen’s freedom” – in this case for shouting near Queen Suthida Vajiralongkorn Na Ayudhya’s motorcade. The two protesters face a potential life sentence in prison for “endangering the royal family.”
These accusations – as well as threats from the Prime Minister – have not deterred the protesters. After Friday’s police offensive, the demonstrations that continued on Saturday seem to have remained largely peaceful – and were well attended despite a shutdown of Bangkok public transport. As many as 23,000 people met in several places around the city, according to a political estimate reported by the Bangkok Post.
“The goal is to change the entire political system, including the monarchy and the prime minister,” a student at the Bangkok told the New York Times.
A democratic crisis of legitimacy
As Vox’s Zeeshan Aleem explained in August, Thailand’s protests depend on the tough legitimacy of the current government.
Although current Prime Minister Prayuth apparently won another term in 2019, the results of this election are controversial. Since then, a major opposition party has been dissolved by the courts, and pro-democracy activist Wanchalearm Satsaksit was reported missing in Cambodia, possibly taken over by Thai government orders.
Wanchalearm has not been seen since his abduction 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 outsiders, these are people who are different from us and they should be killed to bring Thailand back to normalcy,” Jakrapob said. “But nothing could be more wrong in this interpretation. I think their decision to kidnap and murder Tar and others before him has been unintentional to radicalize the people. ”
The protest movement is driven by student activism but lacks defined leadership, according to the BBC. It’s by design – activists have reportedly drawn inspiration from decentralized pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong to maintain momentum in the midst of arrests.
Partly to circumvent speech restrictions, activists have also invoked pop culture symbolism in protests. According to Aleem,
Protesters have used creative methods drawn from the world of popular fiction to disguise their criticism of the government and mitigate accusations of violating political speech restrictions. For example, some protesters have dressed up as Harry Potter figures to advance their arguments against the government and the monarchy. Other protesters who support democracy show greetings with three fingers inspired by Hunger Games series.
The Thai government’s violence against protesters has been condemned by several international organizations. Human Rights Watch argued, for example, that the ban on protests, as well as other new restrictions, meant that “rights to freedom of expression and the holding of peaceful public assemblies are on the huge block of a government now showing its true dictatorial nature.” Amnesty International has rejected the arrests of protesters as an intimidation tactic.
It is unlikely that the protest movement will stop soon – although the government’s response is beginning to repeat the violent anti-protest crashes Bangkok saw in the 1970s.
“The dictatorship must be confronted by the people, even under threat of arrest,” activist Panupong Jadnok told the Washington Post. “We are not resigning. We will fight until our death. ”
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