What’s behind Thailand’s protests and what comes next?

A pro-democracy movement led by student groups is gathering steam across Thailand, with some activists even calling for reform of the kingdom’s unassailable monarchy.

Authorities have so far made 11 arrests on various charges, including sedition and breaking coronavirus rules, before releasing them on bail.

What's behind Thailand's protests and what comes next?
Anti-government protesters hold up three-finger salutes as they wait for detained activists to leave on bail outside the Criminal Court in Bangkok on Thursday. – Thai police Thursday arrested several more prominent activists involved in the kingdom’s young pro-democracy movement, which is demanding an overhaul of the government and breaking taboos by calling for reforms to the monarchy. (AFP/Lillian Suwanrumpha )

Here is what we know so far:

What do the protesters want?  

The protesters are rallying against the government of Premier Prayut Chan-O-Cha.

The former army chief led a coup in 2014 and kept the kingdom under military rule for five years.

Under the junta, a new constitution was drafted before elections were held last year.

Prayut was voted in to lead a civilian government — a win analysts say was tilted by the new charter’s provisions.

Protesters say the whole process was a stitch-up and are calling for parliament to be dissolved, the constitution rewritten and an end to the harassment they are facing.

They also have a list of 10 demands for the monarchy, including throwing out a defamation law that shields the powerful royal family from criticism.

The law is one of the harshest in the world, carrying a jail sentence of up to 15 years per charge.

Why now? 

Discontent has been simmering since February when the leaders of an opposition party, popular among young people, were banned from politics.

Many protesters say the move against the Future Forward Party was politically motivated.

A pandemic lockdown, which sent Thailand’s economy into freefall, exposed the chasms between the billionaire class and the poor.

In June, prominent activist Wanchalearm Satsaksit, who had been living in self-exile in neighboring Cambodia, then disappeared.

Thailand’s social media-savvy activists lit up Twitter with their demands for answers.

The online campaign spilled offline mid-July and the wave of protests across the country started, with up to 20,000 turning out at the biggest rally so far last weekend.

We’ve seen Thai protests before. What’s different? 

True, Thailand has seen a spin-cycle of violent street protests and military coups over the decades.

But in the past the protest movements had vast financial and political clout behind them.

Today’s student demonstrators say there is no single leader — a strategy partly inspired by the Hong Kong pro-democracy protests.

Daring to take on the taboo topic of the country’s monarchy is also a first.

Under the constitution, the royals — including the super-rich King Maha Vajiralongkorn — are supposed to stay out of politics, but they wield enormous clout.

Since the king took the throne in 2016, he has made unprecedented changes, taking direct control of the palace’s fortune and moving two army units under his command.

At his side are the arch-royalist military and powerful billionaire clans.

Pro-democracy students raise three fingers, a gesture of resistance, during a protest rally in front of the Education Ministry in Bangkok on Aug. 19. © APMASAYUKI YUDA, Nikkei staff

What’s the reaction? 

Mixed. 

The student-led protests have drawn support from a broad demographic, including many from the country’s working classes.

The movement has also spread to high schools across the country with teenagers tying white bows of solidarity in their hair and on backpacks.

But pro-royalist groups are enraged and have held their own, smaller counter-demonstrations with mostly older protesters carrying signs like, “Don’t touch the monarchy”.

Army chief Apirat Kongsompong has ominously warned that “hatred of the nation” is an incurable disease.

Prayut last week branded the protest demands as “unacceptable” to most Thais but later struck a more conciliatory note by calling for unity.

What comes next? 

Hard to predict.

By tackling the monarchy, Paul Chambers of Naresuan University says the protesters have “effectively forced the genie out of the bottle”.

Historians — and even the student leaders themselves — have raised the specter of a previous student-led movement.

That ended in October 1976 in what became known as the Thammasat University massacre.

Students protesting the return of a military dictator were shot, beaten to death and lynched by state forces and royalist mobs.

Matt Wheeler of International Crisis Group points to the “clear pattern” of the state using deadly force against pro-democracy protesters.

“So much is at stake for those who benefit from the status quo that it would be imprudent to rule it out,” he told AFP.

Prominent activist Tattep Ruangprapaikitseree plays down such fears.

“We’re now living in a world where social media is embedded in every aspect of our life, so people are not going to let an event like that happen again.”

Agence France-Presse

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