Anti-government protests erupt in Thailand

Tens of thousands of Thai protesters have taken to the streets in mid-October, the latest development in what has become a months-long anti-government campaign that has rocked the country. 

Protesters renewed their calls for the prime minister to step down and clamor for reform of the monarchy with new vigor after Thai police cracked down on marchers on Friday with a water cannon. Efforts to prevent protests by shutting down Bangkok’s public transit network failed to deter demonstrations, which broke out in three major neighborhoods of the city and in smaller surrounding cities.

Widespread student-led protests broke out in Thailand in February 2020 after the country’s Constitutional Court dissolved the popular opposition party, Future Forward. Formed only two years prior, Future Forward gained traction with young people because of its focus on reducing the role of the military in Thai politics. Given Thailand’s volatile history of military intervention and coups, Thai youth and first-time voters flocked to the Future Forward party as a means to challenge this regime. This swell of support culminated in a strong showing in last March’s elections, where it placed third in the party vote. 

However, Future Forward’s influence on Thai politics did not last long after the election. The leader of the party, Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, was found guilty of violating Thai election law after donating USD $6 million to the party, a payment that Juangsroongruangkit insists was a loan. Based on this transaction, the Court found that Future Forward was ineligible to be listed as a political party, and members of the executive committee were banned from running for office until 2030.

The March elections in Thailand were the first since a military coup in 2014 that installed former General Prayuth Chan-ocha as Prime Minister. After seizing power, a new constitution was put into place that reserves seats in the Thai parliament for military officials, a move protesters fear will ensure Prayuth’s grip on power to go unchecked in future elections. The Prime Minister’s refusal to engage in dialogue with protesters or be receptive to calls for reform indicates these fears may well be true.

The mid-October protests flared up following a decree issued on October 15 that banned all political gatherings of more than five people. This announcement came after police arrested over 50 anti-government activists the week before in a government crackdown on the protests. Dozens of well-known Thai activists, including human rights lawyer Anon Nampa and student activist Parit Chiwarak, were among those arrested. 

After widespread arrests and further confrontations between police and protesters failed to curb demonstrations, the Thai government increased its threats against those marching, saying anyone who posts pictures from a rally could face up to two years in prison. For the most part, these threats have done little to stop crowds from gathering in Bangkok and provinces all over the country.

Beyond the resignation of Prayuth, protesters are also calling for a reform of the Thai monarchy, which is unaccountable to nationally elected institutions. Despite Thailand’s status as a constitutional monarchy, the royal family wields immense influence over the country and enjoys the support of the military government. Thai law also strictly forbids criticism of the royal family, and doing so can lead to up to 15 years in prison. The October anti-government protests represent the most significant challenge to the established government in decades.

Thai King Maha Vajiralongkorn spends most of his time living in Europe, a fact that has not escaped the attention of protestors. His expatriate lifestyle combined with extravagant spending habits and steady acquisition of power has angered anti-monarchists, who fear his reign might bring Thailand back to the days of absolute monarchy that existed until 1932. As of now, the King’s only comment on the demonstrations was a TV broadcast where he said, “The country needs people who love the country and love the monarchy.”

With Prime Minister Prayuth refusing to entertain the idea of resigning and silence from the royal family regarding protester demands, Thailand is poised for a standoff that could be drawn out much longer. With solidarity marches planned around the world and words of support from Hong Kong democracy activists, it seems unlikely that demonstrators will yield easily. As of now, police and student protesters continue to face off. 

With high stakes for demonstrators who fear a government crackdown if rallies lose momentum, Thai activists are hoping to capitalize and increase turnout in protests. High school protestor Nattarika Donhongpai said: “Every one of us wants a country that belongs to the people. We want everyone to come out and use their rights and voices to express everything.”

For further reading, check out these articles: 

Thai protesters march on German embassy to seek probe of king — Al Jazeera

As Thailand Protests, Hong Kong Offers Solidarity — The Diplomat

What Now for Thailand’s Protests? — Council on Foreign Relations

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