By Ramon Abarca
Bangkok, Aug 10 (EFE).- Thammasat University in Bangkok, Aug. 10, 2020. During a protest, a 22-year-old student reads a ten-point manifesto calling for the reform of the monarchy and sets off a time bomb that killed off the biggest taboo in Thailand.
That concentration on campus was part of the wave of increasingly massive demonstrations that swept the country and in which students called for democratic reforms and an end to the vicious cycle of the military government.
The dissolution by the courts of the reformist Future Forward party, led by the charismatic young politician Thanathorn Juangroonruangkit, lit the fuse.
But that night in August he went further. The students dared to debate in public something that until then seemed unthinkable. The manifesto called for the reform of the monarchy to end its excessive power in politics, greater transparency in its finances and the elimination of the crime of lese majesty.
“The student protests broke a glass ceiling, especially that of August 10, and have managed to attract more and more people from different social backgrounds to discuss the real institution both in the streets and on social media,” Chulalongkorn University Political Science Professor Pitch Pongsawat said.
Thais lost their fear of speaking in public about the powerful monarch despite the fact that the king was untouchable in Thailand and any criticism had always been taboo and illegal.
Thailand punishes defamation, insults or threats toward the monarchy with penalties of up to 15 years in prison through the draconian Article 112 of the penal code.
The seed had been germinating for months. King Vajiralongkorn lacks the charisma and respect enjoyed by his father, the revered King Bhumibol. His long spells in Germany, especially during the worst moment of the pandemic, the lack of transparency in his finances and his extravagant lifestyle, had drawn much criticism.
Since, the debate broke out on social networks but also took to the streets, where Thais for the first time spoke of the monarch and his role without any kind of restrictions.
An example of this is what began to happen in theaters. In Thailand, before the movie started, the royal anthem played and everyone stood up. In the wake of last year’s protests, only a few continue to do so.
“What has happened in the last year has been a success. Not only did we manage to encourage people to participate more in the protests, but we also managed to promote democratic ideas, making people dare to challenge the government and criticize any issue of society,” said Juthathip Sirikan, leader of the “Free Youth” movement, one of the student groups behind the protests.
However, the student leader is less optimistic about the real changes within the monarchical institution and she remembers how the government “uses increasingly harsh laws to suppress protests” and some of these young people have ended up in prison.
The main leaders of the protests, most of them young university students who dared to speak publicly about a reform of the monarchy, have been imprisoned and charged with lese majesté, for which they could spend years in jail.
Since last year, more than 700 protesters have been charged with crimes ranging from rioting to sedition and more than a hundred are charged with lese majesty, according to the Thai Human Rights Lawyers Association.
Among them is Panusaya Sithijirawattanakul – known as Rung – the student who read the controversial manifesto on Aug. 10 and who became one of the 100 most inspiring and influential women in the world of 2020, according to the BBC.
The student movement was divided and directionless by the fierceness with which the authorities responded, which, adding to the restrictions due to the pandemic, was deflating it.
Despite this, for weeks a new wave of smaller demonstrations have reappeared in the streets of Bangkok where they’ve demanded the resignation of Prime Minister Gen. Prayut chan-o-cha for his poor management of the Covid -19 pandemic, wreaking havoc in the country.
“Although the number of people who come out to protest is lower, this does not mean that there is no discomfort with the Prayut government and the political system,” Professor Pitch said.
He said taking into account the growing number of Twitter hashtags and comments, it can be said that the pulse against the “establishment” continues to strengthen, since ultimately “most of us live in that virtual world.” EFE