By Arianna Pearlstein
Earlier this month, over 10,000 protesters, many of them students and first-time demonstrators, filled the streets of Bangkok to demand government reform. As they stood in front of the Democracy Monument, created to commemorate the 1932 bloodless revolution which ended absolute monarchy in Thailand, the protestors raised their hands in the three-finger salute from the popular science fiction film the Hunger Games. The salute has now become a prominent symbol of this new wave of student-led protests. Not only does it symbolize opposition to undemocratic rule, it also represents the central demands of the protestors as articulated by the group Free Youth:
- The resignation of Prime Minister/junta leader Pryuth’s government and the parliament
- A new democratic constitution
- An end to the suppression and abuse of activists and dissenters
While these are the main demands of the protestors, several others have come to figure prominently in the movement. These protests symbolize a new wave of civic activism, one that is far more explicit in their demands and unafraid to challenge long-standing taboos in Thai society. In this article, I seek to first explain the origins of these protests, and then look at the protestors’ demands and the reasons behind them in depth.
This most recent wave of protests was most directly caused by the dissolution of the Future Forward Party by the Constitutional Court on February 21, 2020, and subsequent criminal charges of the party’s leaders. Formally, the party was dissolved because a loan to the party from its co-founder, Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, was considered illegal. Nevertheless, many suspect the party was strategically eliminated because it posed a threat to Priest’s government. The party gained status as a prominent opposition party when it garnered over 6 million votes in the 2019 elections. Its advocacy of democratic reforms and an end to military rule was very popular among students. Following the party’s dissolution, protests erupted across academic campuses, and started the most recent wave of anti-government protests. Other broader factors also contributed to driving these protests, however, including growing economic inequality exacerbated by COVID-19, human rights violations towards activists, the questionable power of Pryuth’s government, and frustration with the deeply ingrained hierarchical nature of Thai society. Now that we understand what caused these protests, we can ask: what do the protestors want, and why?
For one, the protestors are demanding the resignation of Pryuth’s government and parliament. The Prime Minister came to power in a military coup in 2014, deposing the civilian government. A junta, originally called the National Council for Peace and Order, was subsequently established. In 2017 the junta released a new constitution which included a senate composed of individuals appointed by the junta, the ability of the senate to appoint a prime minister who was not one of them, and entrenched the power of the monarch. These reforms were widely viewed as reversals of democracy, as they entrenched the power of the aforementioned elite with a veil of legitimacy. In 2019, Pryuth was allegedly re-elected by a comfortable majority, but opposition claimed that there were election irregularities intended to favour Pryuth and entrench his government’s power. Protestors thus seek the government’s resignation, given that it has violated democratic standards.
Secondly, the protestors are demanding a new democratic constitution. Despite the fact that Thailand is a parliamentary democracy and a constitutional monarchy on paper, in reality the government is very much controlled by the political elite. As a result, the people have little say in government. Additionally, such an elite-centered system means that internal checks between the segments of government are also lacking. The additional fact that the military plays such a large role in governance has also been heavily criticised. These features, combined with human rights abuses and the power of the monarchy discussed below, have led to demands for a new constitution establishing an unbiased, civilian government accountable to the people.
The last of the mainstream demands is for an end to the suppression of activists and dissenters. According to Human Rights Watch, Pryuth’s government regularly restrains the freedoms of Thai people and violates human rights. For one, the junta cannot be held accountable for rights violations and victims of said violations cannot seek redress. Freedom of speech and expression is also highly restrained, including the cutting off of outside or government-critical media, and the 2016 Computer-Related Crime Act, which the government has used against those critical of the government online. Additionally, the government is suspected of engaging in the forced disappearance and abuse of pro-democracy activists, government critics and journalists. This also includes government attacks on protestors, as was the case with the Red Shirts in 2010. Thus, protestors are demanding a reform of government systems to protect human rights.
Finally, and perhaps most notably, some have begun to speak out against the Thai monarchy, demanding reform. Thailand is a country with some of the strictest lèse-majesté laws in the world, which make it illegal to defame, threaten, or insult the royal family of Maha Vajiralongkorn or any previous monarchs under article 112 of the country’s criminal code. This offense is punishable by 15 years in prison. Students are speaking out against how untouchable the monarchy has become, and society’s hierarchical structure which has enabled such a development. However, even members of past anti-government protests, such as the Red Shirts, are uncertain of such criticism, since the monarchy is viewed by some as an important part of Thai culture. It is important to note that protesters are not advocating for the abolition of the monarchy. Instead, they are seeking an end to such strict lèse-majesté laws which have long hindered freedom of speech in the country.
Overall, it is not yet clear what will become of the protestor’s demands. The government has not officially responded to the protesters’ demands, though protests have taken place under heavy patrol from police forces. Even though it is unlikely that all of the protestors’ demands will be met, it is clear that this new wave of mainly student-led anti-government protests is unafraid to challenge cultural standards and call out government mal-practice to secure a better future for themselves.
Edited by Karolina Hajna
Artwork by Mira Kurtovic