Thailand protests: an unprecedented revolt that pits the people against the king

The royal palace is the birthplace of the King of Thailand Maha Vajiralongkorn, where, as crown prince, he accepted the official invitation of the crown in 2016 after the death of his father, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, which was four years earlier on Tuesday.

Vajiralongkorn – who spends most of his time abroad – returned to Thailand this week to perform a host of royal duties.

On Tuesday, scuffles broke out between anti-monarchy protesters and police at the Democracy Monument in Bangkok, which had been a meeting place during months of protests. Police said 21 people were arrested.

Protesters partially closed the road near the monument and erected a roadblock that police tried to remove.

Later, the Vajiralongkorn convoy passed in front of the protesters for the first time. Protesters chanted, “Free our friends” and raise the three-finger salute from the Hunger Games movies – a popular symbol of the protests.

The deputy police spokesman, Colonel Kisana Pathancharoen, confirmed that the demonstrators had been arrested for staging a demonstration without permission and detained for violating the “public assembly law.”

Protesters plan to gather at the monument, march to the Prime Minister’s Office on Wednesday and camp there. If they continue to do so, they could face a confrontation from the pro-monarchical groups that have planned counter-protests.

Experts say this week could be a watershed moment for the ongoing protest movement, which is calling for a new constitution, the dissolution of Parliament, the resignation of Prime Minister Prayut Chan or Cha, as well as an end to the intimidation of government critics. Many also demand a true constitutional monarchy in a democracy.

Protest leaders expect a massive turnout on Wednesday, but there are questions about whether they are pushing hard to reform the monarchy, and whether people will take to the streets during a sensitive period and the rains of October. The king is in the city, and it was the day of remembrance of the late king, and Wednesday marks the anniversary of the 1973 mass uprising against the military dictatorship.

“I expect the government to tighten control over this protest,” said Puncada Serifunabud, associate professor of politics at Mahidol University’s School of Social Sciences and Humanities.

Those who call for royal reform risk long prison terms. The king is expected to be revered by Thai citizens without any doubt, and for criticizing the king, queen, or crown prince, under some of the world’s most stringent laws.

But those taboos are being broken. What It began as anti-government rallies led by students In cities across the country, it has since grown into a movement that attracts a large segment of society. A demonstration on August 16 in Bangkok drew an estimated 10,000 people and in mid-September thousands turned out again, as protesters put up a plaque near the Grand Palace that read, “Here, people announce that this place belongs to the people, not a king.”

“It is now or ever. The root cause of political problems stems from this institution, we can no longer dance about it and ignore it anymore,” said Panossaya Sethigrawatanakul, a 21-year-old student who became a central figure in this institution. The new student movement. Otherwise, we will end in the same political vicious cycle again. Coups after coups with the support of the king. ”

Panossaia protest leader & quot;  Rong & quot;  Sithijirawatanakul (center) performs the Hunger Games three-toed salute during a pro-democracy rally in Bangkok on September 20, 2020.

Direct challenge

It was one of the hot August nights when Panossaya, known by the nickname Rong, first stepped onto the stage and made a 10-point list of demands for reform to the monarchy.

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The demands included that the king be in charge of the constitution, abolish laws against defamation of the monarchy, draft a new constitution, abolish royal offices, overthrow the army-led government, and dissolve the king’s royal guard.

“I almost collapsed a few times while reading the statement. I couldn’t feel my feet and my hand,” she told CNN. “I was afraid of the crowd’s reaction that night.”

But the crowds did not leave. Panossaia was injured in a nerve.

Although the absolute monarchy ended in 1932, the King of Thailand still wielded great political influence. The image of the former King Bhumibol was carefully curated to present him as a stable father figure ruled by Buddhist principles throughout decades of political turmoil, and he worked to improve the lives of ordinary Thais with great moral authority.

Banusaya Citigerawatanakul reads the list of demands including the repeal of the kingdom's strict royal defamation law during a pro-democracy rally at Thamasat University on August 10, 2020

Nor are political turmoil and bloody protests alien to Thailand. There have been 13 successful military coups since 1932, the last of which was when the incumbent prime minister and former army chief Prayut Chan-o-cha seized power in 2014.

Bhumibol established close ties with these former military rulers, granting them legitimacy in exchange for their unwavering support for the monarchy.

Panossaya and her protest group, the United Front of Tammasat and Demonstration (UFTD), say this method of governance is not constitutional. On September 19, I stood again and read a letter that included a list of reforms personally addressed to the king. The next day, with thousands still outside, the group handed the demands over to the police, with the goal of handing them over to the Privy Council, the king’s advisers.

“I wanted him to hear what we wanted and our complaints. I also wanted people to know that they have every right to speak to the king. Everyone should be equal,” she said.

While Bhumibol was truly loved by many in the country, his son, King Vajiralongkorn, who was crowned in May 2019, does not have the same moral authority.

Vajiralongkorn is believed to spend most of his time outside and has been largely absent from public life in Thailand as the country grapples with the coronavirus pandemic.

Protesters hold pictures of Thailand's King Maha Vajiralongkorn and his late father, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, during a pro-government and monarchy rally in Bangkok, July 30, 2020.

Last week, Germany’s foreign minister said in Parliament that Vajiralongkorn should not run politics from the European country.

While Thailand has successfully contained the outbreak of the Coronavirus, the economic impacts have been severe. Protesters, who say the faltering economy provides few jobs, have begun to scrutinize the king’s vast wealth and power.

Vajiralongkorn consolidated his power by expanding his designated military unit, the King’s Guard. He had also greatly increased his personal wealth – the amendment to the Crown Ownership Act allowed billions of dollars of royal assets held by the Thai crown to be transferred directly to his control, and contributed to several Thai conglomerates – including Siam Cement Public Company and Siam Corporation. General Commercial Bank – in the name of the king. The property budget has also increased dramatically.

“The king has been the most powerful, in terms of formal power, since 1932,” said Baffin Chachafalpongpon, assistant professor at the Center for Southeast Asian Studies at Kyoto University. “Although his father had enormous power, he exercised that power mostly through agents. What makes (Vajirilongkorn) more powerful is that he exercises his power through himself.”

Broader reforms

Reforming the monarchy has become an increasingly central demand, but the protests are a rallying point for more democratic freedoms, including gay rights and women’s rights, as well as educational and economic reform.

Activists say they are tired of injustices such as the continued military control of power through the constitution, the protracted coronavirus emergency – which they say is being used to stifle political opposition and freedom of expression – and the disappearance of the democracy activists who live. In exile.

Even high school students joined the protests, refusing to stand up for the national anthem in schools and raised the three-finger salute.

Puncada of Mahidol University said it is important for the younger generation to push loudly for change because they “don’t see their future.”

“We haven’t seen that in 40 years,” she said. “They want to have a say in what is going on in their lives.”

Students perform a three-toed salute at Samsen School to demand less strict school rules and more tolerance and respect during a protest in Bangkok on October 2, 2020.

Much of their anger has been directed at Prime Minister Prayut, whose army-drafted constitution enabled him to secure the premiership in March 2019 through the military-appointed Senate.

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Young people left their mark in these first post-coup elections, as they voted for new progressive parties and hoped to change the old power structures that favored a few of the wealthy elites.

When Future Forward Popular pro-democracy party – which won the third largest number of votes in the election – orders were issued to dissolve it in February, and young protesters stormed the streets in mob-style protests, calling the move undemocratic.

“We were outraged by the decision,” said Panossaya, who helped organize a protest like this.

She said, “I was like people lost their battle again.”

Last month, the Free People protest group led nearly a thousand protesters seeking a constitutional change to parliament after they voted to postpone a decision on amending the constitution until November.

“The electoral system is not really democratic,” Puncada said. “It is not just the students but the middle class and the poor who want to see democratic elections and a government (based on) a true democracy.”

The monarchy in Thailand has always been considered godlike.  But the protesters say it is time for a change

For Banusaya, a third-year student studying sociology and anthropology at Thammasat University, she is still turning her head around her new bad reputation.

“In the last year, you barely paid attention to me or our activities. Now, I have become a symbol of this movement,” she said.

Panossaia said her family supports her business at the moment. “My father is very worried about me. My parents support my decision, but they are concerned for my safety.”

But Banusaya’s protests have attracted alarming attention from the authorities knowing that speaking out about the monarchy can be dangerous.

“Yes, they put people in front of my house. Unidentified cars or motorcycles followed me,” she said.

Thai Human Rights Lawyers reported that 62 people were arrested over the course of three months of protests, some of whom are facing sedition charges.

Panossaya said she fully acknowledges what might happen if she persists with her demands but said the pressure for reform is very important.

“I know all the possibilities and troubles that could land on me, including my private life,” she said. “We aim to spread this ideology of reforming the monarchy as much as we can. The demands will remain at this moment.”

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