On Sunday, October 18th, thousands of anti-government protesters gathered in Bangkok, defying authorities’ ban on protests while calling for fresh elections, a new constitution, and a reformation of the monarchy. Last Thursday, the Thai government declared a severe state of emergency, prohibiting demonstrations and the publication of “sensitive” news, as pro-democracy protests increased across the country. The ban was implemented after the police arrested more than 20 people, including student leaders who had urged for monarchy reform. Demonstrators ignored the ban, and the weekend consisted of marches with students chanting “release our friends” and calling police “slaves of dictatorship.”
With the intention of stopping the protesters from continuing their anti-government demonstrations, Thai authorities closed parts of Bangkok’s commercial center and shut down public rail networks over the weekend. However, the measures taken by the government did not obstruct the masses. In an interview given to the New York Times, Perakarn Tangsamritkul, 23, who was involved in one of the many gatherings in Bangkok on Saturday, said that “I wasn’t always politically active. You should have met me three months ago,” and added, “Now I understand why we have to be here. We have to speak out.”
Many of the people that are participating in the marches are young students, determined to establish change. “Like dogs cornered, we are fighting till our deaths,” Panupong ‘Mike Rayong’ Jadnok said, one of the protest leaders who remains without charge. He told the demonstrators, “We won’t fall back. We won’t run away. We won’t go anywhere.” Furthermore, the demonstrations have received international attention, with solidarity protests being held or planned in Sweden, Denmark, Taiwan, France, the United States, and Canada.
Expressing negative views about the royal family used to be unacceptable in Thailand, but now taboos are being broken. Despite the fact that potential jail time for insulting the King is up to 15 years, protesters have been demanding restraints to the power of the elites. The urging of a monarchy reform is one of the most significant challenges the government is facing, as it would affect their ability to control politics.
According to Al Jazeera, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha expressed his concern about the protests, arguing that troublemakers could take advantage of the situation and initiate violence. His spokesman Anucha Burapachaisri commented, “The government wants to talk to find a way out together,” but did not specify to whom they would want to speak. Police spokesman Kissana Phathanacharoen said, “The people who came know that there is a ban against public gathering of five or more,” and explained that the police will “take things step by step.”
The former army chief Prayut came to power after a military coup in 2014 and was nominated as prime minister in a controversial election last year, which has been criticized for its lack of fairness. Moreover, Thailand has a long history of political dispute and protest, with resistance towards the monarchy. For decades, the country has been divided between antagonistic factions, especially among an urban elite and a rural base that for a long time has felt ignored in society, considering that Thailand’s wealth gap has grown. For a long period of time, people in Thailand would vote for populist leaders, only to see them removed by military coups or judicial operations that were acknowledged by the monarchy. The country’s political old guard claimed that the elected populist leaders were corrupt and proficient at pleasing the population with false promises like cheap healthcare.
A new wave of demonstrations emerged in February after Future Forward, a popular opposition political party, was ordered to dissolve. Thailand’s Constitutional Court stated that the party had violated election law by receiving donations from its leader. The decision was widely criticized by the masses and protests started to unravel. Since then, tensions have escalated and several demonstrations have taken place. The military-linked government has worked hard to silence the people and to criminalize the movement, but the opposition against the monarchy has only increased. Additionally, more than 80 people have been arrested since October last year, with 27 still being held, according to Thai Lawyers for Human Rights.
The disputes in Thailand continue to persist because of how the government and the monarchy are handling the situation. The elites in the country are protecting the monarchy for their own benefits, as well as to get rid of their political rivals. According to Human Rights Watch, the new emergency arrangements allow the police to arrest protesters without charge for up to 30 days, without any access to lawyers or family. Phil Robertson, Deputy Director of the Asia Division at the organization stated that “Rights to freedom of speech and holding peaceful, public assemblies are on the chopping block from a government that is now showing its truly dictatorial nature.”
Furthermore, the gatherings that have occurred have been immensely peaceful, as protesters adopted nonviolent measures to evoke change. The government has responded with accusations of escalation and violence related to the demonstrations, as an attempt to justify their actions that undermine democratic values. Amnesty International claims the emergency measurements and arrests were “clearly designed to stamp out dissent, and sow fear in anyone who sympathises with the protesters’ views.”
In order to find a solution for the conflict in Thailand, the desires and needs of the people must be met. The monarchy is based on an old fashioned idea, with a royal family that receives generational benefits. The government is committed to defending an unjustified king, considering the monarchy has been recognized as one of the pillars of Thainess. This is problematic because the military justifies its prevalent interference in political life through the protection of the monarchy. Without the monarchy, there is no justification for coups or political schemes. To establish true democracy, the first step is to abolish the monarchy or at least take away all their political power. Along with this, new and fair elections must be organized and held in Thailand, where all parties have the possibility to participate. The result must be based on who obtains the highest number of votes, no exceptions.
The protest leaders and their supporters must continue to ignore bans and illegalization of the movement. The larger the group is opposing and defying the leadership in the country, the harder it gets for the government to ignore measures to satisfy the people. For as long as the demonstrators refuse to be silenced, a democracy in the future is possible. A non-compliant population will hurt the country and its economy more and more, forcing the government to institute reform. Non-violent resistance is the tool of the powerless, and the people of Thailand have come a long way already, breaking taboos like expressing negative views about the monarchy.
Moreover, the arrested protesters must be released, and peaceful demonstrations cannot be labeled as illegal. A protection for freedom of expression, assembly, and speech, has never been so crucial in Thailand. Citizens should not be punished for expressing their political views and desires in peaceful manners. Along with this, international partners and organizations have a responsibility to take action against the Thai government and its military and to support the protesters and the battle for establishing democracy. Putting pressure on the leaders of the country could help the Thai people who will “fight till their deaths.”
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