Protests in Thailand by Caroline Maguire

Demonstration at Kasetsart intersection in Bangkok on October 19. (Courtesy of Khaosod English.)

Recently, Thailand has seen a series of pro-democracy protests in academic settings and cities nationwide. What is the source of these tensions?

Formerly known as Siam, Thailand was a kingdom under absolute rule for centuries, but in 1932, economic strife and political instability led to the establishment of a constitutional monarchy under the leadership of a prime minister; the monarchy retained largely symbolic power. While the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), the junta created by the Royal Thai Army (RTA) in a 2014 coup, was formally dissolved in 2019, its former leader, Prayut Chan-o-cha, currently serves as Thailand’s prime minister. His leadership has seen harsh repression of dissent including Internet and media censorship. Since this February, Thai youth have been protesting at the iconic Democracy Monument in Bangkok against the government.  The acute cause of protest was the government’s forcible disbanding of the Future Forward Party (FFP), whose pro-democracy platform advocated curbing military power and promoting socio economic equality. Most recently, protests have stemmed from Prayut’s restriction of Thais’ human rights, such as freedom of expression and access to information, which has resulted from the government’s implementation of an emergency decree in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Additionally, protestors have called for reform of the Thai monarchy. As King, Maha Vajiralongkorn is considered a divine being and reigns under a strict lèse-majesté law under the Thai Criminal Code that prohibits defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy. Criticism of the royal family can lead to heavy fines or imprisonment for up to 35 years. In light of these restrictions, many have demanded change that would enable meaningful discussions about the improvement of the monarchy. At a demonstration at Thammasat University on August 10, a spokesperson for the pro-democracy Student Union of Thailand demanded that the country’s monarchy become “dignified in line with a universal meaning of democracy”.

In addition, pro-democracy protestors have criticized King Vajiralongkorn for currently living lavishly in Germany and issuing a number of political orders on German soil. Thailand has blocked access to the online petition site after it hosted a petition calling for King Vajiralongkorn to be declared “persona non grata” (unwelcome) in Germany. The petition attracted nearly 130,000 signatures before the site was blocked, although it is still available outside of Thailand. This came after Germany’s foreign minister, Heiko Maas, remarked that the king should not be engaging in politics from Germany.

Speaking up has cost citizens a great deal. Activists and students who have come forward to voice their dissent have faced dire consequences: some have been threatened or attacked or simply “disappeared”. On October 15, a declared “severe” state of emergency was imposed in Bangkok by the government, which banned gatherings of five or more people and reserved its right to enforce a curfew and martial law. The next day, water cannons and tear gas were used to disperse protestors.

The protesting youth of Thailand say that they will continue until their main demands are met: reform of the monarchy, the removal of Prime Minister Prayut’s government, and the revision of the Thai constitution. Read the ten demands of the protestors for monarchy reform here.