Thailand Dissents on Myriad Issues

Photo source: New Mandala
By Naveed Qazi | Editor, Globe Upfront

What began as a student led protests, in a military classroom, in August 2020 against a military revolt, over the behaviour and attire of students, ballooned into full scale protests against the sweeping range of issues at the heart of Thailand's inequalities.

The growing crowds that assembled in various cities cited three demands, which was encapsulated by a slogan ‘Resign, Rewrite, Reform’. They were calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, a former army chief and the architect of a 2014 coup, the overhauling of the constitution, and bringing the monarchy under the purview of the constitution. A ten point formula for change was even read out at one rally.

Hunger games, Harry Potter and Hamtaro (a famous Japanese cartoon) all had been used as motifs in the protests. As the protests have grown, Prayuth had adopted a more conciliatory approach. But, the protesters appear to be unmoved, in a country where economic inequality is so high that one percent controls almost sixty seven percent of the assets, as per an editorial in Guardian.

Thailand ended its absolute monarchy and established itself as a constitutional monarchy in 1932. But, its political system had never found stability for long. The country now is on its 20th constitution. Anti-monarchism largely began to appear in largely poor and rural ‘red shirts’, who supported the ousting of controversial Prime Minister, Thaksin Shinawatra. This movement has often clashed with largely urban pro-democracy movements often seen in universities and NGOs. Eventually this group, the Red Shirts became a larger umbrella group under which most democratic groups aligned. For them, the democratic struggle began with Pridi Banomyong, and the ammat (Bangkok elite-royalists). Their middle-class allies (“slim” or salim) have had jealously held onto power, subverting the outcomes of elections time and again, resulting in overthrowing of democratically elected governments, or engineering their removal by the courts.

In August 2020 students protesting were mostly unaligned with earlier anti-government factions. They were festive with music, speeches, political souvenirs, and food carts churning out cheap food. Protestors even smashed police barricades, and set mailboxes in front of the Grand Palace in which they placed letters to the king demanding monarchical reform. But later, they were splashed with chemical treated irritable water.

Supporters of the monarchy, often identifiable by their yellow shirts, had taken to the streets in smaller numbers to counter the student protesters, sometimes clashing with them. The yellow shirts ones had been poke fun at as they supported the coup derived charters. In these protests, people had posted videos online where they showed royalists attacking them.

However, David Streckfuss, author of Truth on Trial in Thailand has other views about the present generation. He commented in an interview with Asia Times that the new generation, which is smart and flexible, presents a new and modern view of the society, that celebrates difference, whether in political thought, gender diversity or ethnicity.

The protests put the Thai economy in tatters, directly affecting its tourism industry.

In its history, the last king, Bhumibol Adulyadej, who ruled for more than 70 years until his death in 2016, was genuinely admired, and so was never a major target of political protests. His 68-year-old successor is a different story.

His successor, King Maha Vajiralongkorn, a playboy, notorious for ruthless treatment of his ex-wives, lives most of the time in high luxury in Bavaria, has strengthened his power by bringing the huge wealth of the crown and key army units under his direct control. He has taken ownership of Crown Property’s Bureau holdings, which is estimated to be $40 billion dollars.

More and more, he has become the target of the continuing demonstrations, in which irreverence has been a central theme, showing immense bravery of the people.

To show an example, the authorities finally struck back in November 2020, summoning a dozen leaders of the protest movement, including Parit Chiwarak, commonly known as 'Penguin', to face charges under the dreaded Section 112 of the criminal code, the lèse-majesté laws that could land them in prison for up to 15 years. It was revealed in June 2021 that if all charges were counted on Chiwarak, he could face jail sentences for more than hundred years, reflecting military’s use of their old playbook, which is to criminalise opinions that they see as threatening to their rule.

It also seems that a legal discussion of a political insult needs a broader consensus in Thailand. In a Bangkok Post Oped, Atiya Achakulwisut, wrote: ‘Without a clear distinction of what constitutes an insult and what is a fair discussion or criticism of the monarchy, authorities will run into the same problem with the controversial lese majeste law as they try to curb the so-called anti-monarchy sentiment.’

The formidable military establishment, which includes 1600 generals, has few outside threats to contend with. It owns vast business holdings and is also the largest landowner in Thailand. It appoints all two hundred fifty members of the senate, uses conscription to imbue youths with martial traditions, and has its own internal security apparatus, which it uses to bring in dissenters by the thousands for ‘attitude adjustment’ sessions. The army has not even been reluctant to use gunfire against protesters in the past. Even dissidents who have fled the country have been harassed, disappeared or killed.

Superpowers such as United States have supported Thailand’s dictators, elected prime ministers, and monarchy ever since World War II, a period that saw thirteen military coups. During 2020, relations deepened under President Trump, who embraced Prayut in the Oval Office in 2017. At the same time, there is also a rivalry between China and US for influence in Bangkok.

Anon Nampa, the lawyer who helped kick-start the movement had been detained and he once warned: 'If we don’t fix the monarchy, we can’t fix anything else.'

It was in the first week of August 2020, when Anon Nampa, the human rights lawyer, delivered a blistering speech against the monarchy at a demonstration at Democracy Monument. He dressed as Harry Potter and used ‘magic’ to reform the monarchy. His public criticism of the institution became the talk of the town, deciding that ‘it’s time for change’.

Thai Lawyers for Human Rights even submitted a complaint to a parliamentary committee calling for an end to the legal harassment of critics of the Thai monarchy active on the Facebook group, “Royalist Marketplace.” This page was set up by exiled government critic, Pavin Chachavalpongpun. The site had been a space for Thais to exchange information and voice their opinions about the monarchy. The group is particularly popular among students. But the page had attracted the attention of royalists who had subjected members to a witch hunt. According to Anon personal information of some twenty five members had been revealed, subjecting them to attacks by internet royalist trolls and fourteen others had been threatened, or charged by the police. The military-led government had tried, unsuccessfully, to pressure Facebook to close the page, ironically helping to advertise the page further. That’s why, the page’s members rose from about five hundred thousand in early June 2020 to almost nine hundred thousand by the end of August 2020.

Almost a century after, these protests, both online and in person, seem to represent Thailand’s national moment, but it seems military and capitalism won’t allow people to define nationalism in their own terms.


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