Protestors in Bangkok marched to the German embassy, flanked by riot police and soldiers, to express grievances with the King of Thailand and a court ruling last week declaring that advocating for reform was tantamount to overthrowing the King. Blocked from reaching the Constitutional Court, the body which made this ruling, hundreds of protestors instead converged on the German embassy, as the King of Thailand Vajiralongkorn is currently staying in Munich in one of his lavish estates in Bavaria. This ruling comes after a year and a half of intense unrest directed against the current Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha who took power in a coup in 2014, as well as against King Vajiralongkorn, whose opulent lifestyle, increasing power, and strict lèse majesté laws preventing any criticism of the monarchy has drawn the unprecedented ire of the Thai people. Protestors held signs reading “Reform is not abolition” and “No absolute monarchy,” as well as burning pictures of Constitutional Court judges.
Thai officials defended their lèse majesté law before the UN Human Rights Council on November 10th, reiterating their belief that the laws, which can carry a sentence of 15 years for those convicted of defaming, insulting or threatening the King or his family, were integral to the Thai state. This despite the UN Human Rights Council’s expressed disapproval for the laws’ expanded use in recent years, with the Council consisting of officials representing Belgium, Canada, Finland, France, Germany, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland, according to Reuters. The U.S. in particular warned that it was “concerned by the expanded use” of these laws and how they relate to the trend of free speech in Thailand.
The Thai government’s track record with human rights has proven lackluster, with increasing repression of their citizens and their right to express dissatisfaction with the regime. Last week Human Rights Watch released a joint open letter alongside 10 other NGOs to Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha regarding his government’s abuse of ostensible COVID-19 restrictions to clamp down on dissidents. The letter writes that, of the 1,330 people charged under the Emergency Decree, often times “authorities targeted critics and activists under the guise of the state-of-emergency orders,” warning the Prime Minister that “restrictions on the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly issued under the Emergency Decree law are unlikely to meet international standards.”
This ruling is the newest round of government crackdowns in Thailand’s tumultuous interplay between the military and the nominal democratic government. As reported by the Borneo Bulletin, since the 1932 Revolution ended absolute monarchy, the nation has had 20 constitutions and 13 coups. Two of these coups took place in the last 20 years, one in 2006 and one in 2014, the latter seeing the military dissolve a caretaker government following widespread protests and a political crisis, and placing General Prayut Chan-o-cha as Prime Minister, a position he still holds. Dissatisfaction with the current government culminated in explosive protests beginning in February of 2020 and continuing on and off until present day, calling for Prayut’s removal and the return of the civilian government. But the protests have also focused on King Vajiralongkorn, who succeeded his popular father in 2016, especially regarding the King’s wealth, which Al-Jazeera estimated was US$70 billion, his close connection with Prayut’s regime, and the expanded use of the lèse majesté laws to punish anyone criticizing the King, his family, or even his pets.
The court ruling is another unfortunate setback to democracy in Southeast Asia, a region which has seen parts of the progress made in the last 30 years rolled back by political instability and military rule. Neighboring Myanmar’s civilian government, which only began taking power from military rule in 2011, was overthrown in a coup this February. But protests have been organized across Southeast Asia, including Thailand and Myanmar, with millions expressing anger at intransigent political systems and leaders who ignore the will of the people. Despite recent attempts to retain hold on power, citizens who have experienced the promises of fair elections and free speech refuse to return to the military’s status quo, and as international actors from the UN to ASEAN denounce these regimes, a return to democracy is not yet lost.
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