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Anti-Government Protests: Thailand

Thailand has a long history of political turmoil and protest, but a fresh wave started in February after a court ordered the dissolution of a fledgeling pro-democracy opposition party. In the March 2019 election, which was won by the incumbent military leadership, the Future Forward Party (FFP) had been popular with young, first-time voters and won the third-largest share of parliamentary seats. When prominent pro-democracy activist Wanchalearm Satsaksit went missing in Cambodia, where he had been in exile since the military coup of 2014, demonstrations were reignited in June. However, as his whereabouts remain unknown, the protesters accuse the Thai state of orchestrating his kidnapping – something the police and government have denied.
There have been daily student-led street protests since July. Demonstrators also called for the overthrow of the government headed by Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, a former army chief who seized power in the coup, for the rewrite of the constitution and for the authorities to stop abusing critics.

When considering the laws that protect the Thailand Monarchy, each of Thailand’s 19 constitutions of modern times has stated, at the top, that: “The King shall be enthroned in a position of revered worship” and that “no person shall expose the King to any sort of accusation or action”. These provisions are backed by article 112 of the criminal code, known as the lese-majeste law, which subjects anyone criticising the royal family to secret trials and long prison sentences. The definition of what constitutes an insult to the monarchy is vague and human rights advocates argue that the legislation has also been used as a political instrument for curbing freedom of expression, and demands for reform and change from the opposition. In 2015, one man faced up to 15 years in jail for sharing pictures of the then king’s pet dog on social media in a manner that seemed to ridicule the monarch. Other forms of falling foul of the law include “liking” some controversial social media references, challenging something from Thai history that could be interpreted as derogatory to the monarch, or writing a book or playing with characters that imitate royal family members.

Alarmingly, last month, when a 10-point call for change to the monarchy was read out on one demonstration, the protesters’ demands took an unprecedented turn. This incident sent shockwaves through a nation that has been taught to revere and love the monarchy from birth and to fear the consequences of talking about it. Panusaya Sithijirawattanakul, the young woman who delivered the manifesto, said their goal was “not to abolish the monarchy, but to modernize it, to adapt it to our culture.” But she and her fellow activists have been accused of “Chung chart”-a Thai word meaning “country hate”-and by speaking out they say they are profoundly afraid of the repercussions of doing “the right thing.”

However, on Saturday, thousands of demonstrators in Bangkok, the capital of Thailand, protested against the government of Prayuth Chan-ocha, the former coup leader and Prime Minister, with many also calling for changes to the strong monarchy. One of the slogans was “Down with feudalism, long live the people.” The police said that there were at least 5,000 people gathered at the Thammasat University campus, which had long been seen as a hotbed of resistance to the military and royalist system, and the scene of the 1976 massacre of protesters.
While drizzling, protesters gathered on to Sanam Luang, a public space across from the Grand Palace where state ceremonies are usually conducted. The day, September 19, marks the anniversary of the 2006 coup against populist then-Prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Many of his redshirt supporters, veterans of clashes with yellow pro-establishment shirts a decade earlier, were amongst the protesters. “I’m here to fight for the future of my children and grandchildren. I hope that by the time I die, they will become free,” said 68-year-old Tasawan Suebthai, a redshirt with amulets around her neck to ward off bullets. So far the protests have been peaceful. The biggest to date drew more than 10,000 people last month, but organisers expect more this time.

By Jumana Jabeer

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