Battle for democracy in Thailand

In a countrywide movement, protesters battle the military-backed government seeking fresh elections, a new Constitution that protects their rights, and a radical reform of the monarchy.

Published : Nov 10, 2020 06:00 IST

Pro-democracy  protesters hold up the three-finger salute during an anti-government rally in Bangkok on October 26.

Pro-democracy protesters hold up the three-finger salute during an anti-government rally in Bangkok on October 26.

Something out of the ordinary has been happening in Thailand in recent months. The military-backed government in the country, used to lording over the populace for decades and stage-managing elections without breaking a sweat, now has a fight on its hands.

What began as spontaneous protests in July by students in the capital, Bangkok, demanding explanations from the government about the murders and disappearances of prominent Thai dissidents has now expanded into a countrywide movement that threatens to bring to an end the dominance of a venal Thai political and business elite that has been loath to give up its monopoly on power and wealth for more than a century. In the last couple of months, tens of thousands of people have rallied in Bangkok and other parts of the country demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha. They are also demanding a new Constitution, along with a guarantee that the democratic rights of the people will be respected. Also read:A political wave in Thailand

People belonging to a cross-section of Thai civil society have joined the protests despite threats from the country’s powerful security establishment. The government assumed “emergency powers” in mid-October and banned all public meetings, but this did not deter the new generation of media-savvy protestors. The Prime Minister even warned the protestors not to “challenge the grim reaper”, threatening to use deadly force, stating: “Don’t be reckless. Anybody can die today or tomorrow.”

Missing dissidents

The first spark for the agitations was lit in June after Wanchalearm Satsaksit, a leader of the pro-democracy movement who was forced to flee from Thailand in 2014, was abducted from a street in Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital, and has never been seen again. Many dissidents who had fled to neighbouring countries also disappeared without a trace. Two dissidents residing in Laos were brutally eliminated and their disembowelled bodies were found dumped in a river near the border between Laos and Cambodia. The governments of Cambodia and Laos are no doubt aware of the circumstances surrounding the disappearance of the Thai activists, but until now they have refused to divulge any information.

The general populace in Thailand is fed up with the antics of the Bangkok elite and their backers in the security establishment and the royal palace. In the last 20 years, only one government was allowed to complete its term—the one formed by the millionaire politician, Thaksin Shinawatra. Despite being re-elected with an overwhelming majority, he was ousted by the military half-way through his second term. Also read:Dealing with an unrest

Popular leaders like Thaksin Shinawatra and Thanathorn Juangroongruangit, leader of the Future Forward Party, were barred from participating in politics by a pliant judiciary acting at the behest of the military. The parties headed by the two leaders were also disbanded on specious legal grounds.

The right wing and the royalists with their political power base concentrated in Bangkok openly fomented violence against democratically elected leaders. In the last two decades, Bangkok was periodically rocked by deadly protests in which the “yellow shirts” (supporters of the status quo and the monarchy) and the “red shirts” (pro-democracy supporters) clashed violently. The army inevitably ended up supporting the “yellow shirts” and overthrew civilian governments, undermining the democratic process. Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha orchestrated the coup against the last freely elected government led by Yingluck Shinawatra in 2014. He gave up his military uniform for a civilian garb. But despite the backing of the monarchy and aided by money power and selective rigging, Prayuth’s party, known as the Palang Pracharat Party, failed to get a majority. The Pheu Thai Party owing allegiance to Thaksin Shinawatra still emerged on top, but Prayuth got the top job by threatening or debarring opposition parliamentarians. Anyway, the Army-approved Constitution ensured that the upper house of parliament was packed with hand-picked candidates owing allegiance to the Army, and the Army leadership claims its legitimacy not from the people but from the monarchy. All the coups that the military has conducted so far have had the monarchy’s backing.

Backlash against King

The new monarch, King Maha Vajiralongkorn, who ascended to the throne after the death of his father, King Bhumibhol Adulyadej, has proved to be an unpopular figure. The previous King was much more discreet in the exercise of royal prerogatives. Thailand’s monarchy is supposed to be a constitutional one since 1932 but the Bangkok elite, in a bid to preserve its vested interests, put the monarchy on a pedestal and ensured that the lese majeste laws they helped enact were strictly implemented.

The lese majeste laws forbid criticism of the monarchy. Even social media posts criticising the monarchy attract long jail terms. The United Nations has asked Thailand to repeal the draconian lese majeste laws, which are among the strictest in the world. “The King shall be enthroned in a position of revered worship and shall not be violated. No person shall expose the King to any sort of accusation,” says the new Constitution foisted on the people by the military. Also read:Civilian cover

The new King, whose personal lifestyle came in for considerable criticism during his long years as heir apparent, took direct control of public assets controlled by the royal court worth more than $30 billion. Earlier, the huge assets of the royal family were placed under a trust administered by the government, called the Crown Property Bureau. The royal palace has stakes in many of the big companies operating in the country. The Thai King, who can be counted among the richest men in the world. also took personal command of two Bangkok-based military units. The King spends most of his time in Germany, where he maintains a lavish palace-like residence. Even German parliamentarians have raised questions about his ostentatious lifestyle while the Thai people were being suppressed violently at home amid a pandemic. It has been reported that more than 150,000 Germans have sent a petition to German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, asking them to declare the Thai King “persona non grata”. Frithjof Schmidt, a member of parliament representing the influential Green Party, said that the King’s political activism “was incompatible with his residency status in Germany”.

The King and his entourage returned to Thailand in early October. It is not known whether he intends to return to Germany anytime soon. In late October the protesters in Bangkok marched to the German embassy demanding that the King be barred entry to his homes in Bavaria.

Call for reforms

The demonstrators have taken more direct aim at the monarchy by demanding radical reform of the institution. They have called for the abolition of the lese majeste laws and a drastic reduction of the budget allotted to the monarchy with more civilian oversight. They have adopted the “three fingers” salute from the popular television series Hunger Games .

In an incident captured by the media on October 14, protesters were seen booing and flashing the “three fingers” salute when a motorcade carrying Queen Suthida passed through one of the roads where they had assembled. It was one of the most impertinent acts of lese majeste ever witnessed in the country so far. It was after this incident that the government proclaimed “a state of emergency”.

Under the emergency laws, the government banned gatherings of more than five people and censored any news deemed to hurt “national security” or “create fear”. Around 20 protest leaders were arrested after the incident involving the Queen. Some other protest leaders were arrested even before the proclamation of emergency. Although the ban did impede the momentum of the protests, the government’s actions further galvanised the protesters, who viewed the latest arrests as yet another attempt to safeguard the extra-constitutional powers of the monarchy. Faced with mounting protests, the Prime Minster beat a tactical retreat, at least for the time being, and announced the withdrawal of the “emergency laws” less than a week after they were implemented. Also read:Coup in Bangkok

Despite the revocation of the emergency, the government authorised the police to continue to use more force against the demonstrators and have bussed in soldiers to Bangkok. The protesters allege that many soldiers have donned yellow shirts to violently confront them. Water cannons have been liberally used against the protesters but they seem resolute. The Prime Minster has said that there was no question of him resigning. The protesters gave him a “three-day” ultimatum in late October, which was ignored.

The core demands of the protesters remain. They want new elections, a new Constitution and a radical reform of the monarchy. The government, instead, is claiming that there is a conspiracy to undermine the Thai way of life by a cabal of anti-monarchists and groups operating from outside the country. The government and its diminishing number of supporters have also been saying that the current mass protests are part of a “communist” plot to destabilise Thailand.

Another accusation being hurled at the protesters is that they are being manipulated by the West, allegedly because of the close economic relations between Thailand and China. Thailand has been an important military ally of the United States since the beginning of the Cold War in the early 1950s. The U.S. has military bases as well as an important Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) station on Thai soil. The militaries of the two countries have very close relations. In fact, the U.S. never seriously objected to the periodic right-wing military coups that took place in Thailand in the last 70 years. Also read:Political impasse

Western governments and media have been noticeably silent over the use of water cannons and other strong-arm methods against protesters on the streets of Bangkok and other cities. This was not the case when protesters took to the streets of Hong Kong last year. Interestingly, the leaders of the Hong Kong protests are strongly backing the protests in Thailand, which are also led by the younger generation. There are many similarities in the tactics being adopted by the Thai protesters and the protesters who virtually paralysed Hong Kong for much of last year. Thanathorn, the young opposition leader who is now competing with Thaksin for popularity, has asked the U.S. to support the protest movement.

The Thai political establishment has brutally dealt with past uprisings, especially those led by student activists espousing a left-wing ideology. Thais still remember the student protests of the 1970s that rocked university campuses in the country. The students then, like those protesting on the streets today, questioned the outsize role the monarchy was playing in the politics of the country. The government violently crushed the uprising. The massacre on the campus of Thammasat University on October 5, 1976, where over a hundred students were killed, is still graphically etched in the memories of many Thais. The army staged yet another coup the following day claiming that the civilian government was incapable of protecting the monarchy.

The current government has so far confined itself to arresting some of the key protest leaders. But many in the military and the influential pro-royalist camp are straining at the leash. The Thai army and security forces have got away with many massacres and killings in the last two decades. But another massacre of innocents at this juncture could prove counter-productive for the Thai political establishment given the widespread support the protest movement enjoys among the common people today.

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