Tensions caused by the current Thai government’s policies have come to a head this week, as approximately 2,500 non-violent protestors converged at the Democracy Monument in Bangkok on Saturday. The protestors were calling for the dissolution of parliament, the end of incarceration of government critics, and a rewriting of the constitution. The protestors dispersed at around midnight, saying that if their demands did not have a response in two weeks, they would resume the protests again, reports Al-Jazeera.
Anti-government tensions have been ramping up in recent months, for a variety of reasons. Before COVID-19, large groups of people were taking to the streets to protest a court ruling dissolving a popular pro-democracy opposition party, which supporters believed was targeted because of its criticisms of the government and military, according to Bloomberg News. These tensions were only heightened when Wanchalerm Satsaksit, a prominent Thai pro-democracy satirist and activist was kidnapped in Cambodia in June, and has not been heard from since, reported the New York Times at the time. He was not the first critic of the government to go missing, as other Thai dissidents have gone missing in Laos, only to have their bodies wash up on the shores of the Mekong River.
Human Rights Watch released a report last year covering the extreme enforcement of the lèse-majesté law in Thailand, one of the strongest in the world. Article 112 of Thailand’s criminal code punishes anyone who criticises the monarchy with a jail term between three and 15 years, according to the BBC. This often extends to government critics as well. The law has been repeatedly criticised by international actors, with Amnesty International saying that it is used to “silence peaceful dissent and jail prisoners of conscience.” Protestors on Saturday held up signs saying, “End 112”, risking incarceration for criticising the monarchy and the government, as their frustrations mount. One of the protestors said “The government doesn’t care about us, so we come out or we lose anyway. The laws protect the rich and leave the people with nothing.”
In addition to protesting the government silencing of criticism, the protests accused the government of poorly managing the economic fallout of COVID-19, according to the Bangkok Post. Because of COVID-19, Thailand is experiencing one of the worst economic downturns it has ever had. Unemployment is on the rise, a very salient issue for students and recent graduates, which made up a large proportion of the protestors.
There is an overall mounting sense of frustration amongst protestors towards the government, not a novelty in Thailand’s political climate. The country has a long and complex history with the manifestation of democracy, and the respecting of its citizens’ rights to freedom of speech. Under the governance of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, conservative policies have deepened the power of the military and the monarchy in Thai politics, which angers many pro-democracy activists, reports the South China Morning Post.
The issue now is how this tension manifests itself in the future. As quarantine in Thailand starts to let up, there are worries that the government will continue utilising its increased emergency powers to detain government critics. In response, as more people feel it is safe to go outside, the protests will increase. International actors must monitor this situation and implement sanctions if the Thai government responds to the protests with unacceptable violence. As many deep-rooted issues come to the forefront in 2020, let this be another one that gains international scrutiny.
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