Why Protesters Are Back on the Streets in Thailand

Thailand’s 2019 election was billed as an end to five years of military rule. Yet not much changed after the disputed vote: Former army chief and coup leader Prayuth Chan-Ocha returned as prime minister with the help of a military-backed party and the military-appointed Senate. After a court early this year ordered an opposition party to disband, student-led rallies for more democracy gained momentum. Their demands have even extended to the monarchy — a shocking development in a country where criticizing the king can land you in jail. The mounting protests have added to the woes of a government already struggling with a pandemic-induced economic crisis.

1. What are the protests about?

Much of the ire surrounds the constitution drafted by the junta ahead of last year’s election, which all but guaranteed that the military-backed regime would retain control. Some groups want the charter rewritten along with the election laws to make them more democratic and reduce the military’s role. They also want the government to resign afterward and hold a new vote. And they have demanded an end to harassment of government critics such as the now-banned Future Forward Party, whose candidate lost to Prayuth in the race to become prime minister.

2. What about the monarchy?

In early August one of the movement’s leading voices, Arnon Nampa, made a rare public call for rolling back measures enacted after King Maha Vajiralongkorn took the throne in 2016 that increased his power. That was followed by a student-issued list of demands including a clear separation between the monarch’s assets and those under the quasi-government Crown Property Bureau. There was also a call to “reduce the amount of the national budget allocated to the king to be in line with the economic conditions of the country,” which is suffering a deep downturn due to the coronavirus. Other proposed changes would ban the monarch from expressing political opinions, prohibit the king from endorsing any coups and remove a provision preventing people from bringing lawsuits against the monarchy.

3. What was the reaction?

A vice minister in Prayuth’s office filed a police complaint accusing Arnon of defaming the monarchy, a charge that can be punished by as many as 15 years in prison. Arnon told the rally that he wasn’t calling for toppling the institution, but that questions about its role needed to be raised. At least 61 people face charges ranging from violating the noise ordinance to sedition, which is punishable by as many as seven years in jail. Fourteen of them, including Arnon, have been arrested and released on bail since July, according to the support group Thai Lawyers for Human Rights. Prayuth hasn’t directly addressed the demands regarding the monarchy, but has said his administration was open to making some unspecified changes to the constitution. He said the police won’t use force against peaceful protesters, but has questioned the movement’s funding and legitimacy and instructed relevant agencies to ensure safety and prevent incitement.

4. Who’s protesting?

Young people mostly, including dozens of pro-democracy groups organized by colleges and universities. They’ve been joined by high school students chafing under military-style dress codes and gay, lesbian and transgender youths. There are no official leaders, but each group takes a turn protesting in different locations across Thailand. (There was a lull during the coronavirus lockdowns.) Some demonstrations have attracted thousands of people — among the biggest since the 2014 coup — with labor groups expressing support as well. A poll taken in July (before the monarchy became an issue) found 54% of respondents agreed or somewhat agreed with the student movement. The survey of 1,250 people by the National Institute of Development Administration had a confidence level of 95%.

5. What’s the complaint about the constitution?

It set up a 250-member upper house, or Senate, comprised entirely of junta appointees and military brass, which can block legislation passed by the lower house. It also gets to vote along with the 500-seat lower house on prime minister, effectively tilting the playing field in the junta’s favor. (A junta-backed candidate can sweep the Senate and then win with just 126 votes in the lower house.) In addition, the new constitution obliges future governments to adhere to the old regime’s 20-year development plan, which took effect in 2018 and also covers national security. Supporters say the plan will prevent graft and promote stability. Critics argue it further entrenches military rule.

6. Why did the military take over in 2014?

That coup, one of many since the absolute monarchy ended in 1932, followed a long effort by Thailand’s urban and royalist elite to curb the influence of Thaksin Shinawatra, a telecommunications tycoon first elected in 2001 on a populist platform and ousted by a coup less than six years later. (He went into self-imposed exile in 2008 to avoid trial on corruption charges that he says were politically motivated.) Despite his long absence, Thaksin retains a loyal following, particularly in the heartland where voters credit him with boosting crop prices and providing cheap health care. Detractors accuse him and his allies of vote-buying, fiscal recklessness and failing to do enough to tackle corruption. His sister, former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, also fled the country in 2017 rather than face jail in a criminal case related to a costly policy of paying farmers above-market rates for their rice crop. She also says the charges against her were politically motivated.

7. What’s different now?

The grassroots nature of the protests are unusual for Thailand, where demonstrations over the past two decades have largely been backed by powerful political actors such as Thaksin or his rivals in the royal establishment. That presents a potentially greater challenge for Prayuth, who is struggling to rescue an economy that is heavily dependent on tourism and trade and can ill-afford political instability. Forecasts say gross domestic product may contract 8.5% this year. The king himself is relatively new, following the seven-decade reign of his revered father, King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

8. How did the election go?

It was wild. In February 2019 a small party stunned the country by nominating Princess Ubolratana Rajakanya as its candidate for prime minister. Her brother, the king, quickly quashed that as unconstitutional, and the courts disbanded the party soon afterward. On the eve of the vote, the king, traditionally considered above politics, released a rare statement that in effect asked voters to back “good people” to keep out those seeking to “cause trouble.” After the voting, the Election Commission unexpectedly delayed releasing some provisional results. Thaksin wrote in the New York Times that the election was “rigged” and that the junta “will find a way to stay in charge.” Days later the king revoked the royal decorations Thaksin still held. The winning governing coalition was led by Prayuth and the main pro-military party, Palang Pracharath, with a dozen or so smaller partners.

9. What’s the outlook?

The governing coalition has gained more seats in parliament by winning by-elections and persuading some lawmakers to cross the aisle. Still, it has a slim majority in a legislature divided into two camps, one against military involvement in government, and the other pro-junta, anti-Thaksin. These alliances represent the regional and class divides that persist in the Southeast Asian country of 70 million people. The prospect of gridlock between the military and civilians leaves Thailand prone to political crises and coups.

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