What’s going on in Thailand?
An unprecedented wave of protests has swept through Thailand in recent months, led by high school and university students calling for major democratic reforms. Some have also broken a long-held taboo and risked prison terms to demand that the power and wealth of the country’s monarchy be reduced.
Why have protests erupted now?
Young people say they are tired of an establishment that has violated their democratic rights and the progress of the country.
Protests began on college campuses earlier this year in response to a court ruling to dissolve Future Forward, a major opposition party. The party was particularly popular among young people in last year’s elections – a vote that was supposed to bring Thailand back to democracy following a 2014 military coup, but was instead marred by allegations of irregularities and which critics said was biased in favor of the military.
The emergence of the coronavirus pandemic halted the protests, but only temporarily. Under the lockdown, frustration with the authorities mounted. While Thailand has managed to avert a major coronavirus outbreak, the economic impact of the pandemic has been devastating and has highlighted the country’s gaping equality gaps.
Online, protesters’ anger was increasingly aimed at the monarchy, with the hashtag “#whydoweneedaking?” posted over a million times.
In June, discontent escalated when it was reported that pro-democracy activist Wanchalearm Satsaksi had been kidnapped in Cambodia. Rights groups say he is the ninth exiled activist to disappear in recent years. The government and the military have denied any involvement.
What do the protesters want?
One of the slogans of the protesters is “let this end with our generation”. They are tired of a cycle of coups that has dominated Thailand’s political history.
The students are mostly united around calls for the dissolution of parliament, an end to harassment of critics of the government and for constitutional changes backed by the military.
Some have also called for reforms of the country’s powerful and wealthy monarchy, which they say is too close to the military and accuse of interfering in politics.
A recent demonstration organized by the United Front of Thammasat, which issued 10 demands for reform of the monarchy, brought together tens of thousands of people. The group called for cutting the king’s budget and separating his private funds from the assets of the Crown. They also called for an end to laws that prohibit criticism of the monarchy.
King Maha Vajiralongkorn ascended to the throne after the death of his father, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, in 2016 and has since strengthened his authority, placing the wealth of the crown and major army units under his direct control.
Protesters say they are not calling for the abolition of the monarchy, but for its modernization. Their demands angered the royalists.
Is it illegal to criticize the king?
The Thai royal family is protected from criticism by a strict lese majesty law punishable by up to 15 years, although Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha has said the king has requested that no one be prosecuted under the law. Dozens of protesters have been charged with various other offenses after taking part in protests in recent months, according to the Thai Lawyers for Human Rights group.
How did the authorities respond to the requests?
Prayuth said he would consider some of the protesters’ demands for the constitution, but said the monarchy should not be criticized.
The Royal Palace made no comment on the protests and demands for reform.
Rights groups say authorities are trying to contain the protests by arresting activists and pressuring universities and parents to prevent students from pushing for monarchy reform. Authorities also ordered Facebook to geographically block content critical of the Royal Family, including a page with more than one million members. The group’s creator, Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a self-exiled critic of the monarchy, has already set up a new page that has overtaken the last group’s previous membership.