A student-led protest movement has rocked Thailand for the past five months. Young people took to the streets to call for true democracy and risked prison to break a taboo that has long prevented frank public debate on the monarchy. Their protests, attended by tens of thousands of people, present one of the most daring challenges the Thai royal family has faced in living memory.
Protesters say they are not asking for the abolition of the monarchy, but for it to be reformed, accountable to the people and not above the law. They also called on Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, a former army general who came to power in a 2014 coup, to step down, and to change the constitution to make the political system more democratic.
Few subjects have not been addressed by the movement. At Saturday’s rally, organized by Bad Student, a group that represents school students, protesters called not only for monarchy and government reform, but also for an overhaul of the education system.
Students want investments in schools and an end to the military influence and rigid hierarchies that continue to dominate classrooms, stifling free speech. Bad Students has shone the spotlight on abusive teacher behavior – from the use of humiliating punishments such as cutting students’ hair if deemed inappropriate, to the continued use of corporal punishment, despite its ban. The group also campaigned for better protection for LGBT students. Yesterday, a student, dressed in a school uniform and her mouth sealed with duct tape, held a sign saying, “I have been sexually abused by teachers. School is not a safe place. ”
“Authoritarianism doesn’t just manifest itself in the manipulation of elections, it is practiced in everyday life,” said Janjira Sombatpoonsiri, assistant professor of political science at Thammasat University.
Students say they want room for freedom of thought and a curriculum that allows for different interpretations of Thailand’s past. “History always mentions the bright side of Thailand – changing history, mentoring others, admiring someone in the sky,” one speaker said at yesterday’s rally, referring to the king.
The current program glorifies the role of the royal family but includes very little about the most sensitive episodes in Thai history – including the massacre of pro-democracy college students in the 1970s.
“The monarchy should be on the agenda, but it should be the truth,” said a 15-year-old who, like all protesters, asked not to be named. Her parents, she added, did not know she had come to protest.
On her wrist, she wore a pink bracelet to show that she was under 18. Amnesty International and other rights groups at the rally handed out orange and pink wristbands to indicate whether a protester was under 18 or 15. They hoped it would. remind the authorities to protect the safety of young protesters.
On Tuesday, at a much larger rally organized by college students, water cannons containing chemical irritants were fired at protesters, along with tear gas and gas pepper grenades. Despite a huge police presence, opposing groups of royalist “yellow shirts” and pro-democracy students were allowed to clash, resulting in violent clashes. By the end of the night, six people had been shot and dozens were treated for other injuries.
The students accused the police of unfair treatment and failing to protect them. At a rally the next day, they sprayed the police headquarters with paint.
There is a risk of further clashes between royalists and protesters, said Matthew Wheeler, senior analyst for the International Crisis Group, who fears such violence “could be a pretext for a coup to” restore the order ””.
“What comes after a future coup is also worrying. If it were to foreshadow a severe crackdown on dissent, it could spark a wider conflict, ”he added.
Prayuth said last week that “all laws, all articles” would be used to take action against protesters, suggesting charges could be laid under the harsh lese majesty law. Authorities have so far stopped using the law, which provides for a 15-year prison sentence for anyone who “defames, insults or threatens the king, queen, alleged heir or regent”.
Other fillers have been widely used. So far, 175 people have been charged with sedition, carrying a maximum sentence of seven years, or public assembly offenses. This includes two of the teenage organizers behind Bad Students – Benjamaporn Nivas, 15, and Lopnaphat Wangsit, 17.
Yet as authorities hint at yet another crackdown, protesters have vowed to step up their rallies.
They are motivated not only by renewed anger at the police response, but also by Parliament’s recent decision to deny one of their key demands – to change the constitution so that the monarchy is accountable, and for senators to be accountable. appointed by the army are replaced by elected officials.
Instead, MPs and Senators agreed to create a committee to draft reforms. Even that will take months, and no changes will be made to the monarchy – an institution which, under the current charter, is to be “inducted into a position of revered worship.”
“In the past, at least, you have pretended to listen to protesters and there is a pseudo-round of negotiations,” said Janjira, who added that authorities may be trying to push pro-democracy protesters to be aggressive in the streets in order to justify repression. “We are coming to a very dangerous point,” she said.
During rallies, protesters hold placards mocking recent comments by King Maha Vajiralongkorn who, when asked about the protests, described Thailand as “the land of compromise”.
“How dare he lie about it?” The system is not like that at all, ”said a 17-year-old. “They don’t listen to our voices. They did not listen to us because it is not to their advantage.