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The Kingdom of Thailand and its Pro-Democracy Protests

On Thursday, the police arrested 5 Thai activists for participating in Pro-Democracy rallies and for undermining the monarchy of Thailand. This comes in the wake of relentless pro-democracy protests, demanding that to reduce the powers of the prime minister, the monarch and the military. Students have led protests across the streets of the country every day protesting against the strict lèse-majesté law in Thailand that can jail a person for 15 years for defaming the royal institution. The protests, which had begun in February were forced to a halt when a lock-down was imposed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We dream of a monarchy that coexists with democracy,” Anon Nampa, a human rights lawyer and prominent activist reportedly announced to the crowds on Sunday.

Pro-democracy protesters attend a rally to demand the government to resign, to dissolve the parliament and to hold new elections under a revised constitution, near the Democracy Monument in Bangkok, Thailand, August 16, 2020. (Reuters)
Pro-democracy protesters attend a rally to demand the government to resign, to dissolve the parliament and to hold new elections under a revised constitution, near the Democracy Monument in Bangkok, Thailand, August 16, 2020. (Reuters)

The protests were first triggered when the Constitutional Court decided to ban the Future Forward Party, an opposition party popular among the youth. Former FFP members had also revealed that members of the military dictatorship or junta were involved in the 1MDB scam conducted in Malaysia that embezzled up to US$322 million.

Prayut Chan-o-cha, the Prime Minister of Thailand and the leader of the junta National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) rose to power in a 20014 military coup which overthrew the Yingluck cabinet, and repealed almost half the constitution, except for the second chapter, which is about the king. They declared martial law and curfew nationwide, banned political gatherings, arrested and detained politicians and anti-coup activists, imposed Internet censorship and took control of the media.

Then in 2019, the first election since the coup was held. However, it has been described as ‘neither free nor fair’ and the NCPO rose to power again. The frustrations against the military government boiled over into protests again especially after the military government enforced a strict lock-down that, while it dealt with the COVID count effectively, enabled military officers to violate quarantine procedures, while keeping civilians strictly off the streets - effectively suspending any opportunities for organised dissent. However, its effectiveness in suppressing the COVID-19 pandemic has given protesters more freedom to organise events without fear. The Emergency doctrine has been renewed thrice already, and may be done so for the fourth time. Human Rights Watch noted this and have called it “an apparent pretext for violating basic rights” because the decree has stifled all forms of dissent and journalism, effectively granting the military immunity during this period.

The protesters have 3 demands - the resignation of the cabinet, the dissolution of parliament, and drafting of a new constitution. This essentially means a reformation of the current monarchical system, that views the King and the Royal Family as godly beings that must never be criticised, despite the lavish lives they lead, putting pressure on the country’s fragile economy.

“In the past, there have been statements fooling us by saying that people born into the royal family are incarnations of gods and angels,” student activist Panusaya Sithijirawattanakul reportedly said onstage at a rally at Thammasat University. “With all due respect, please ask yourselves, are you sure that angels or gods have this kind of personality?”

Even though the Thai government has handled COVID-19 well, the kingdom’s tourism and trade–dependent economy has been battered, and has shrunk by 12.2 percent in the second quarter of the year. Meanwhile the king, Maha Vajiralongkorn, has spent the majority of the lockdown in a luxury hotel in Germany, except for occasional visits. He returned last week to attend his mother’s birthday, but departed the very next day according to the New York Times. He has also been the subject of gossip for his affairs, marriages (including being the first king in over a century to take a secondary consort), and extravagant acts (like naming his miniature poodle, Fufu, as the Air Chief Marshal).

The government has only responded to the so-far peaceful protests with arrests of lawyers, students and activists, while the monarchy has responded with sheer indifference. Right now, amidst rising tensions, the outbreak of violence seems like a very tangible prospect. Whether the will and tolerance of these peaceful protesters can stand the test of time still remains to be seen.

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