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‘I’ll go as far as it takes’: Why thousands are risking jail to protest the Thai monarchy

Written by on 02/11/2020

For the past four months, protesters have taken to Thailand’s streets to call for an overhaul of the government, the military, and – most controversially – reform of the monarchy.

Demonstrations in the southeast Asian country are not unusual, but what makes this time different is the call to make its royal family more transparent and accountable.

Most protesters are young and have grown up with military coups and various political crises.

Why did the protests begin?

The current unrest has been brewing in Thailand since 2014, when the military seized power in a coup led by General Prayut Chan-o-cha, who has been prime minister since.

In 2016, a referendum was held on the constitution, which critics said only offered semi-democracy and was seen as tightening Thailand’s military rule. Many did not see the referendum as being fair.

Lese majeste rules against defaming, insulting or threatening the king, queen or heir apparent were tightened, and anybody who is found guilty of doing so can be jailed for three to 15 years.

In 2019, Thailand held its first general election since the coup five years before and General Prayut was appointed prime minister. Many critics alleged the election was rigged in his favour.

The turning point for current protesters was when the constitutional court banned the Future Forward party – Thailand’s most vocal opposition party – in February this year.

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Anti-government protests held in Bangkok

Thousands took to the streets of Bangkok in February, but then COVID-19 hit and gatherings were banned, halting the protests.

When lockdown was lifted in July, protesters were back on the streets. This time, students had a list of demands and protests spread to other towns and cities in Thailand. For now, the protests have been generally peaceful.

What are the demands?

There are three main demands being made:

  • The prime minister’s resignation and dissolution of parliament
  • Constitutional reform
  • An end to harassment by the authorities

And some are calling for a reform of the monarchy.

Why are protesters asking for the monarchy to be reformed?

King Bhumibol Adulyadej was widely revered, but when his son, King Maha Vajiralongkorn, 68, succeeded him after his death in 2016, he consolidated power and wealth in the monarchy and increased his constitutional powers – which protesters want to reverse.

Activists say Thailand is backtracking on the constitutional monarchy established in 1932, when absolute royal rule ended, and that the monarchy is too close to the army, which they argue has undermined democracy.

Protesters want the lese majeste laws scrapped and for the king to give up personal control of a palace fortune estimated in the tens of billions of dollars.

The Thai king and queen met supporters outside the Grand Royal Palace in Bangkok on 1 November
Image: The Thai king and queen met supporters outside the Grand Royal Palace in Bangkok on 1 November

They are also unhappy the king has been spending much of his time in Germany, where photos of him wearing fake tattoo sleeves and crop tops have caused consternation in Thailand.

The German government investigated whether the king had breached its ban on conducting politics while in the country, but found he had not.

The king, who has been married four times, reinstated his royal consort in September after stripping her titles when she tried to elevate herself to “the same state as the queen”, the palace said.

What are the protesters saying?

Sky News spoke to Bangkok students who started protesting for the first time a few months ago.

Prach, 32, PhD student

Prach Panchakunathorn said the genie is out of the bottle when it comes to criticising the monarchy
Image: Prach said the genie is out of the bottle when it comes to criticising the monarchy

“For me, the amendment of the constitution to pave the way for the rewriting of it is the most important because, through that, you can issue other demands, such as reform of the monarchy, reform of the military and also the judiciary.

“The prime minister came to power in a military coup and he used the power of the state to rig an election

“The call for the reform of the monarchy, well, the genie is now out of the bottle, we’re at the point of no return.

“Three months before this, no one thought it [reform] was possible, but now people are seriously thinking it’s possible and has to be done.”

Suchada, 21, student

Suchada Hnoonpakdee said she is willing to die for democracy in Thailand
Image: Suchada said she is willing to die for democracy in Thailand

“For the past six, seven years under this government, which has been undemocratically elected through the military in 2014, we have been living under a government that does not care about the people, only what will benefit themselves.

“Throughout Thailand’s history, the monarchy has been a subject beyond our grasp, it’s not the way it should be in any democratic country where we value free speech.

“I am doing whatever I can do now that will push this government and for society to change, but I hope for a point where we can compromise

“If that doesn’t come anytime soon I’m willing to go however far it takes because if not now, when?

“If it takes my life or my safety – I know just by going out now I am risking so much of my safety and people around me, my family is also at risk of being harassed by the police.

“I want to tell my children I didn’t stay silent, I did something to change their lives, and my children’s lives are more valuable than my life.”

Nudchanard, 21, student

Nudchanard Kammee said many of her classmates are in prison
Image: Nudchanard said many of her classmates are in prison

“Many of my friends are in jail, I have to study in a class where many of my friends can’t be there because they got arrested.

“I’m fighting for my future and our whole generation, and all people in the country.

“If we don’t do something, if it’s not right now, I don’t know how long this situation is going to be going on. The next generation will suffer as well so if it’s not me, us, then who?

“We hope and want this to be the last chance to break the cycle. We’re one small country with the greatest number of coups in the region.

“The government keeps trying to write down the rules – it’s not benefiting anyone in Thailand, the people or the country’s future.

“So, we’re hopeful this will be the last time we can change a country that is rotten.”

What are the counter-protesters saying?

Crowds of royalists have come out in support of the king, most of them from the older generation who were fiercely loyal to the former monarch.

Making a rare comment, the king and queen walked among a crowd of supporters on 1 November, where he called Thailand the “land of compromise” and said he had a “love” for all Thais.

Tawatchai Silamut, 64, banker

Tawatchai Silamut said he is not sure if pro-democracy protesters understand what they are asking for
Image: Tawatchai Silamut said he is not sure if pro-democracy protesters understand what they are asking for

“In all my years, the king is quite important for Thailand, it’s unique, he’s always concerned about his country and his citizens.

“What the protesters express, I’m not sure if they understand what they’re asking for.

“To get the solution for the economy or political is one thing, but when they directly attack the king it means they’re not really concerned with the economy or politics.

“They hit the heart of the Thai people so I don’t think they are demanding the right thing – we cannot agree with that.”

Taya Teepsuwan, 48, businesswoman and former politician

Taya Teepsuwan came out to support the king
Image: Taya Teepsuwan came out to support the king

“I’m here to represent Thai citizens who want to keep the monarchy, who trust and are very proud in the heritage of Thailand.

“We’ve been living under the constitutional monarchy for a long, long time and we’re very proud.

“The monarchy has been with us for hundreds of years.

“The problem with the protesters, what they show to Thai people, it hurts a lot of Thai people who love the royal family.

“We don’t have any issues with the political agenda but we want to present our voice, as Thai citizens, that we are royalists and we will protect our royal family.”

Will the pro-democracy protests be successful?

Unprecedented is often an overused word, but protests against the Thai monarchy are truly that.

Despite this, Dr Thitinan Pongsudhirak, associate professor at the faculty of political science at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University, thinks that despite this, the protests will change nothing.

Pro-democracy campaigners have been protesting outside the German embassy in Bangkok as the king spends most of his time in Germany
Image: Pro-democracy campaigners have been protesting outside the German embassy in Bangkok as the king is often in Germany

He told Sky News: “This has been brewing for some time.

“The protesters are generation Y and Z, under 40. They’ve been putting up with Thailand’s military coups and political crises for much of their life.

“They’ve seen it doesn’t work for them, there’s no future. Thailand has no good future and that means they have no future.

“Since 2014, Thailand has fallen behind, there’s economic stagnation, no growth strategy going forwards, corruption, nepotism and cronyism in all branches of bureaucracy.

“The military is outdated and yet this government arranged for the constitution to be rewritten for them to be part of Thai politics indefinitely.

“Access to social media platforms has been very empowering for young people, it has become the arena to show them information they didn’t know before.

Some academics are doubtful the protests will bring about change
Image: Some academics are doubtful the protests will bring about change

“What they want is the kind of constitutional monarchy that the UK and Japan have – transparent and accountable.

“However, the established centres of power are not going to give in, they’ve been in power for decades, they’re closing ranks.

“The military, monarchy, judiciary, Bangkok elite, they’re like a wall of power now, they’re not going to let go.

“These young people won’t stop either, so the situation is combustible and likely to get worse before it can get better.

“You’re going to have the status quo maintained for the near-term, the monarchy and the judiciary, they’ll want to weather out the storm.

“Compromise and mutual concessions are needed, but I don’t see why those who have called the shots for so long would want to give up power and wealth.”

 Sky News

© Sky News 2020

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