Conflicts & War

Thailand’s 2020 protests: Unfulfilled demands and a shattered taboo

By Gaspar Ruiz-Canela

Bangkok, Dec 19 (efe-epa). Months of student-led protests in Thailand have resulted in the frustration of demonstrators not yet having achieved their desired reforms and satisfaction over the historic accomplishment of breaking the taboo on speaking publicly on the monarchy.

Just a few months ago, monarchical reform was a topic absent from public debate and discussed only privately in a country where huge portraits of the royal family hanging in public and private places are evidence of the revered status of the institution.

Another visible change since the protests began is that King Maha Vajiralongkorn has tried to get closer to his subjects, taking photos with them and signing autographs, something not previously done, although his followers continue to prostrate themselves in front of him.

While the protests began in February, after a break due to Covid-19 restrictions, a fresh wave of massive peaceful demonstrations started in July demanding the resignation of prime minister and coup leader Prayut Chan-ocha and the drafting of a new constitution, as the current charter is considered a legacy of the military junta (2014-2019).

However, the most controversial demand of the students, who have also been joined by workers, activists and the LGBT community, among others, has been for reducing the power and privileges of the king, who ascended the throne in 2016.

These demands have come at a cost. At least 29 protesters, including a 16-year-old, have been charged with violating the lese-majeste law, which carries prison terms of 3-15 years.

Some are also accused of sedition, punishable by up to 7 years in prison.

“Over the past five months, we have succeeded in addressing Thailand’s political problems in depth. We have also opened up space for the public to discuss the monarchy,” 36-year-old human rights lawyer Arnon Tampa, one of the most prominent faces of the protest, told EFE.

“We have been able to bring out the problems that have been swept under the carpet for a long time,” he said, adding that for the next few weeks there will be a break from the large mobilizations and new protest strategies will be prepared for the new year.

The protesters, who have mobilized through social networks, challenge the interference of the military, which has seized power through 13 coups since the end of absolute monarchy in 1932.

King Vajiralongkorn doesn’t enjoy the reverence of his late father Bhumibol Adulyadej, and his long stays in Germany and opulent lifestyle in Bavaria have drawn criticism during the Covid-19 pandemic, which is crippling the Thai economy.

Since he ascended the throne, the monarch has had the constitution changed so that he would not have to appoint a regent during his long stays in Germany. He has also taken personal control of key military units in the capital, in addition to the Crown Property Bureau assets, valued at over $35 billion.

Despite being hit with teargas and water cannons, the protesters have maintained a festive and creative atmosphere in their gatherings, which attract tens of thousands of people.

At one protest, demonstrators dressed up for a “Harry Potter vs He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named” (Lord Voldemort) theme, while yellow inflatable ducks used as protection against water cannons have also become a protest symbol.

The most iconic symbol of the demonstrations has been the three-finger salute inspired by the “Hunger Games” franchise.

Despite a handful of visible figures such as Arnon, Panupong “Mike” Jadnok, Panusaya “Rung” Sithijirawattanakul and Parit “Penguin” Chiwarak, the protesters have adopted a flat organization structure to be able to fluidly call flash protests and communicate in a model inspired by the 2019-2020 Hong Kong protests.

Anon Chawalawan, an expert from legal nonprofit iLaw, told EFE that it was not clear if the visible faces of the protests were leading the demonstrations or if there are strategists working behind the scenes.

“It is not known who the real leaders are,” he said.

Anon warned of an increasing use of the lese-majeste law, even though Prayut had claimed in June that it had been sidelined for the past two years at the request of the monarch.

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