Protests in Thailand began this year, in late February, in response to the banning of Future Forward Party (FFP) over allegations that it tried to overthrow the monarchy. Shortly after its formation, the FFP won the third most seats in the March 2019 election, on a promise to rewrite the constitution to include democratic reforms and curb the military’s influence in politics. The COVID-19 pandemic brought an end to public demonstrations with the government declaring a state of emergency, limiting gatherings to under five and restricting travel. Protests began again on July 18, when 2500 gathered at the Democracy Monument in Bangkok and made three key demands: the dissolution of parliament, for the government to stop threatening citizens who criticize it, and a new more democratic constitution.
What began as a student and youth movement has attracted a wider cross section of Thai society, and the demonstrations have grown in frequency and size. Students have been able to tap into public resentment by drawing attention to issues, such as a justice system that many feel favours the rich and powerful. For example, Vorayuth Yoovidhya, the wealthy grandson of billionaire Chaleo Yoovidhya, was involved in a hit-and-run incident, while intoxicated, that resulted in the death of a police officer in 2012. He fled abroad before his arrest and the charges against him were dropped in January of this year, which the public did not learn of until late June. Resentment has also fomented against Thailand’s monarch Maha Vajiralongkorn who in 2018 was granted personal ownership of public assets from the Crown Property Bureau valued between $30-$40 billion. He spends most of his time in Germany, and Angela Merkel’s government warned him not to conduct state business while on German soil.
The BBC reported that, on August 14, there were ‘pop-up’ demonstrations in 49 provinces advocating for reform, and in 11 provinces there were protests in support of the monarchy and government. On August 16, demonstrations returned to Bangkok at the Democracy Monument and estimates put the crowd between 10,000 to 25,000. 600 police officers surrounded the monument and prevented protesters from reaching it. On September 19, an estimated 30,000 to 100,000 demonstrators descended on Sanam Luang, a public square adjacent to the Grand Palace in Bangkok.
Prime Minister Gen. Prayut Chan-o-cha has also reversed his pledge to listen to dissenting voices and has since taken a more aggressive position toward pro-democracy demonstrations. For example, some demonstration leaders have been charged with sedition, which carries up to a seven-year sentence. While some protests have remained peaceful, there have been violent clashes between demonstrators and government forces. On October 13, police arrested 20 activists after they used physical force to disperse protestors at the Democracy Monument, who threw paint at the officers as they were assaulted. Authorities charged them with a range of offences including the intent to cause violence and using loudspeakers without permission. Brad Adams, the Asia Director at Human Rights Watch, called for the charges to be dropped and the demonstrators to be released immediately.
On October 16, CNN reported that two Thai protesters were charged with attempting violence against the Queen as her motorcade passed by demonstrators. Bunkueanun “Francis” Paothong and Ekachai Hongkangwan are predicted to be charged under Section 110 of Thailand’s criminal code, which carries a stiff sentence of 16 years and a maximum of life imprisonment. The penalty can be death if it is determined that the Queen’s life was in imminent danger. The Thai Lawyers for Human Rights report that they believe the two are not facing the death sentence.
Since the motorcade incident, the protests have intensified. SkyNews reported that public transit was shutdown and roadblocks were erected in Bangkok, on October 17, in a government effort to stifle demonstrations as pro-democracy protesters took to the streets for a fourth day in a row. While the demonstrations that day (October 16) were peaceful, Thai police aggressively charged and turned water cannons on the crowds.
Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha continues to firmly reject calls to step down and had an ominous warning for protesters: “Just wait and see…If you do wrong, we will use the law.” The Thai government has said it intends to take legal action against Twitter and Facebook accounts being used to promote protests. Thai authorities have already banned thousands of pro-democracy websites, and on November 3, they banned 190 pornographic websites. Thailand ranked in the top 20 for daily traffic by Pornhub in 2019 and is known internationally for its sex industry.
With no sign of either side willing to back down, observers fear the inevitability of yet another military coup if the demonstrations turn more violent. The unrest is also being fueled by the dire economic outlook for Thailand. Thai Bank predicts the economy will shrink by over 8%, largely due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic which has decimated the heavily dependent upon tourism sector. With more protests planned for this weekend, in its current state there is a strong likelihood that this crisis will continue to heat up.
The future of Thailand hangs in the balance, possibly towards meaningful democratic change so desired by the demonstrators, but also possibly towards yet another military coup that preserves the status quo for the rich and powerful. While the current regime may be resistant to giving up any power, they should remember the commitment of the protesters, exemplified in the words of a student who referred to herself only as Pin: “I have to fight for my future.”
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