New developments concerning the protests in Thailand that have active since February 2020 indicate that a mass trial began on March 15 for activists that have spoken out against the Thai monarchy as part of a general youth movement calling for reforming its structure and fixing the constitution. According to Reuters, 22 demonstrators are denying sedition charges which could lead to prison sentences of up to 15 years. Legal accusations also include insults towards the Thai monarchy.
So far, the court has declined to comment and the projected length of the trial is unknown, but what is known is that requests for bail have been declined by the court to prevent further protests. The Diplomat magazine notes that the initial shocks in foreign investor confidence at the start of the youth movement expose the country’s significant level of political instability.
Protesters surrounded Thailand’s national parliament in November, leading police forces to use water cannons and evacuate members of the parliament. The reforms that the youth movements call for which led to the detention of 22 demonstrators on charges of seditions are meant to democratize the leadership of the country and reform the monarchy, signaling desires for a democratic constitution, granting protection to dissidents, and the parliament’s dissolution, according to The Diplomat. According to the United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner, experts of the agency are calling for the Thai leadership to amend the criminal code to avoid cracking down on protests judicially in such a manner as they are doing right now. Prime Minister and former coup leader Prayuth Chan-Ocha are alleged to have “engineered a process that would preserve the political status quo and keep him in power after a 2019 election,” (Reuters).
As of today, Thailand’s government has not heeded the calls of pro-democracy activists in the country surrounding constitutional amendments that are more reflective of international human rights standards. The mass trial, adjourned until March 29 according to Reuters, is using the basis of sedition and royal insults, an accusation that is misconstrued and antithetical to the kind of democratic norms that protesters call for and that the United Nations Human Rights agency pushes for.
The leadership’s setbacks in addressing this problem and actions that exacerbate the instability’s magnitude are what lead to the incessant nature of the youth movement’s protests, a catalyst for the scene at the national parliament in November. The military government in control of neighboring Myanmar is following Thailand’s model of legitimizing rule, which proves the authoritarian tendencies of the leadership in Thailand, according to the Council of Foreign Relations’s Asia Unbound blog. Brad Adams, Human Rights Watch’s Asia Division’s executive director, criticized Article 112 of Thailand’s Criminal Code which allowed for the mass trial of dissidents and stated that this heavy-handed enforcement must cease, and authorities should “allow a broad-based discussion to bring the law into compliance with Thailand’s international human rights law obligations,” Human Rights Watch notes.
While international organizations are speaking out against this authoritarian behavior, we have yet to see how individual countries or economic unions like the United States, the European Union, China, or Japan formally respond to the developments of the protracted instability and series of crackdowns, including the trial. The Thai government’s behavior is not just authoritarian in behavior, but also the origin. Its continued rule under Chan-Ocha began when he, as a retired army general, led a successful coup that took control of the country from an elected government, according to Reuters.
Due to his subversion of the previous government and the youth movement’s allegation that he worked to preserve the military-monarchy establishment, it is clear that the government is not willing to concede to democratic reforms without pressure. Even before the mass trial’s commencement, as of March 6, according to Amnesty International, hundreds of protesters, including children, faced criminal charges and ongoing detention periods since the institution of Thailand’s emergency decree in October. Additionally, scores have been injured. This anti-democratic and forceful response from authorities only makes tensions boil further and results in further violence without a clear end in sight. Considering that the student-led protests are adamant about wanting change, and the Thai government is fiercely opposed to it, the repressive actions of the authorities are counterproductive towards healing this division and finding at least some kind of middle ground or accommodation.
The situation in Thailand is one of many that reveals why a peaceful solution should always come first, not just because it saves and protects the most lives, but also because it is the most efficient. The crackdown by the government is exactly what is making the youth movement more active, robust, united, and determined to get the change that they will demand as long as they could. Since democratic change is not easy to accomplish by just a youth movement in this context, international powers should come into play here. From U.S. Secretary of State Blinken to European Union officials to observers in Asia, there needs to be a strong panel of mediation to give democracy strength and ensure peace and safety in Bangkok and other parts of Thailand.
Hopefully, China can also play a role in guiding discussions and finding solutions towards peaceful resolution given the geopolitical circumstances. Whether it sanctions, trade disputes, prolonged discussion, or efforts to reach out to protesters themselves, the effort to address the issue needs to have global involvement because the government will not just change their stance on their issue as a post-coup force, and violence only worsens the situation and makes the case for the protesters. The end goal should be for international parties to negotiate with or pressure the Thai government to allow for some, if not all, of the democratic reforms that the youth movement in Thailand is demanding, and it will make the governing institutions of Thailand more inclusive, representative, and satisfactory for the people. It would be beneficial to the cause for the same international organizations that have been speaking out to double down and remain active in pursuit of finding peaceful, sustainable solutions to a tug-of-war between a traditional establishment and a people’s movement desiring constitutional and structural change.
The United States considers Thailand a key security ally in Southeast Asia, so much so that it was designated as a Major Non-NATO Ally in 2003, according to the U.S. Department of State Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs. This should be a signal for American leadership to hold the Thai government accountable given the leverage provided by the positive, mutually beneficial relationship. The issue in Bangkok and other places within Thailand mirrors that of Myanmar, where the military recently deposed the government and took control. Myanmar’s predicament also features violent, ongoing repression that ignores tenets of peaceful, democratic dissent, and the manner to which it is similar to what is going on in Thailand proves that something must be done. With the support of NGOs, international human rights organizations, and independent powerful entities like the United States, a substantial solution can be made in the power struggle between a desire for democracy and a traditionalist military-monarchy alliance. Everyone necessary should have a seat at the table in an issue that is consequential to the security of democracy as an idea and as a practice in Thailand.
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