Conflict In Thailand From Growing Protests Against Prime Minister

In recent weeks, Bangkok has seen a surge in protests against the Thai government and Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha for their slow and chaotic vaccine rollout, as COVID-19 cases increase. Protests last weekend resulted in violent clashes between protesters, comprise of mostly young people, and the police, who reportedly employed water cannons and tear gas against demonstrators throwing projectiles near Prayuth’s residence. According to Amnesty International, three minors were injured by live ammunition during demonstrations on Monday, leading to calls for investigation into possible use of unlawful force and human rights violations by Thailand’s law enforcement.

“[S]ecurity forces must refrain from using the type of excessive force that has been seen repeatedly during protests since 2020,” said Emerlynne Gil, Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific Deputy Director. “[R]ecent policing of assemblies, coupled with Thailand’s history of impunity for excessive and sometimes even lethal force against protesters, highlights the need for Thai authorities to change their approach.”

Thailand’s daily August coronavirus cases and deaths have been breaking records, and recently led to increased restrictions imposed on the population. Vaccination rates are low, with only approximately 8.75 percent of the population fully vaccinated, which protesters attribute to incompetence on the part of Prime Minister Prayuth in his vaccine program. The economy, largely reliant on tourism and global markets, also faces a serious blow. 

Demonstrators are calling for the prime minister to resign because of his poor handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, and for Thailand’s monarchy and military budget to be partially reallocated into managing the crisis. These demands are carried forward from those of youth organizers who have been protesting against the government since 2020, as the pandemic highlights the inequality embedded into Thailand’s political system. More broadly, a new generation of politically engaged and disillusioned youth are calling for a complete reform of the Thai government, constitution, and monarchy. Tension builds as both sides reject compromise and the ruling party clings to power, with protests quickly becoming violent this month.

Opposition parties within the government reflected the public’s disapproval of Prayuth’s governance. They filed a no-confidence motion against him and five other ministers that will lead to a censure debate in parliament later this month or early September. “[G]en. Prayuth has lost the legitimacy to remain in office. We will use parliamentary mechanisms to increase pressure against him,” said Pita Limjaroenrat, leader of the Move Forward Party.

With large protests on Prayuth’s doorstep and his refusal to step down, the prime minister’s government has resorted to suppressing dissent with an increased risk for human rights violations in doing so. Already many activists have been charged under the lèse-majesté royal defamation law or harassed outside of the law by the government for their critiques. The international community should support the continued monitoring of Thailand for violations of civil liberties and express that failure to protect the right to protest will harm Thailand’s relations with other nations. 

With no sign that tensions will decrease as the severity of the coronavirus crisis becomes more pronounced, the outbreak of more violence between protesters and police in the near future is likely. Reconciliation efforts in the past have failed, but now especially they must continue in order to prevent more harm coming to young Thai protesters. International actors like the European Union can offer guidance and mediation in reconciling the conflict between the dissatisfied youth and their government.