Pro-democracy protests in the Thai capital Bangkok this weekend have grown in magnitude as thousands of protesters have gathered to call for reform of the monarchy and for the Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha to resign. The BBC reports that authorities have put numbers at the Saturday demonstration at 18,000 but that organizers themselves have indicated the latest demonstration was attended by around 50,000 individuals. The pro-democracy movement in Thailand was slowed earlier this year by the COVID-19 pandemic but resumed in June with renewed vigor following the disappearance of prominent pro-democracy activist Wanchalearm Satsaksit from Cambodia. Satsaksit had been in Cambodia in exile following the military coup of 2014 that saw PM Prayuth seize power. The Government has been accused of kidnapping Satsaksit, which they have categorically denied, but which has nevertheless served to spur on protests.
A key driving force behind this movement is the ordered disestablishment of the Future Forward Party (FFP) in February, a pro-democracy party that was hugely popular with young voters and which had won a third of the seats in parliament in elections in March 2019. In a statement to Al Jazeera, Professor Thongchai Winichakul, an emeritus professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, commented on the FFP saying: “…it represented the brewing dissatisfaction that is erupting today. The Future Forward Party was outspoken on many issues including opposing the building up of military force under the direct command of the palace. Only politically naive people would believe that the party’s dissolution has nothing to do with its progressive politics and its criticism of the monarchy.”
There is widespread discontent with the monarchy amongst demonstrators, something that is pertinent in Thailand where historically the monarch is usually revered at the highest level. The monarchy has become increasingly powerful, largely because of ties to the military, and, controversially, King Maha Vajiralongkorn currently has full control over the crown’s funds, which Al Jazeera reports is estimated to be worth up to $30 billion.
During protests this Sunday, a so-called ‘people’s plaque’ was laid by protesters near the Grand Palace, inscribed with the words: “At this place the people have expressed their will: that this country belongs to the people and is not the property of the monarch as they have deceived us.” The plaque was placed in an area that is known as what roughly translates to as ‘royal ground,’ and is where a plaque had previously been installed to commemorate the end of an absolute monarchy in Thailand in 1932, but which disappeared for unknown reasons in 2017, coinciding with the year that the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn was crowned.
Multiple demonstrators have also been arrested in the wake of the latest demonstrations, Amnesty International reports that several individuals were charged with participating in a protest on the 18th of July, for which they could face up to seven years in prison. Ming Yu Hah, Amnesty International’s Deputy Regional Director for Campaigns speaking in response to the arrest of a further eight individuals today, stated, “Authorities are weaponizing the law to silence people who peacefully criticize the government.” Thailand also has a very strict lese-majeste law, which means that anyone criticizing the monarchy can be convicted for up to 15 years. This law was frequently used in the years following the 2014 coup, however, Prayuth has reportedly indicated that the King does not wish to use this moving forward. As demonstrated by the arrests this weekend, however, this is not stopping the government making arrests under other laws, as part of what looks like an attempt to quash the pro-democracy movement.
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