Bangkok Is Engulfed by Protests. What’s Driving Them?

BANGKOK – Protests in Thailand, which began as a student-led revolt against the influence of the military on the classroom, have developed into a broad spectrum of issues at the heart of the country’s deeply ingrained social and economic differences.

The growing crowd of demonstrators who have gathered for weeks in peaceful protests across the country have made three main demands, which are grouped under the motto “Resign, rewrite, reform”.

They call for the resignation of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, a former army chief and architect of a 2014 coup d’état; The revision of a constitution that he enforced took power from the citizens and created an appointed Senate. and bring the monarchy under the scope of the constitution.

As the protests grew, Mr Prayuth took a more forgiving approach. But the demonstrators seem unmoved.

Thailand ended its absolute monarchy and established itself as a constitutional monarchy in 1932. But its political system never found stability for long. The military has played a key role in politics, with a dozen successful coups against elected leaders, most recently in 2006 and 2014. The country now has its 20th constitution.

The monarchy is protected by Thailand’s powerful Law of Majesty, which can impose up to 15 years’ imprisonment for making statements deemed critical of members of the royal family.

Hate speech and criminal defamation laws, as well as a cybercrime law that regulates online content, can also be used to restrict freedom of expression.

The demonstrators:: They are mostly students, including many in high school, who are inconsistent with previous anti-government factions. Many initially wondered about their behavior and clothing by military-style school rules. This discontent has become a major challenge for the government, the military and the monarchy. A three-finger salute, which means a silent rebellion and comes from the “Hunger Games” films, has become a symbol of defiance. The protests started in Bangkok and have spread to other provinces.

The Prime Minister: As head of the army in 2014, then General Prayuth led a coup that ousted a democratically elected government. Since then he has been head of government. He pushed through a new constitution that came into effect in 2017, weakened the power of political parties in parliament, allowed for an appointed Senate, and ensured continued military influence over the government. A newly constituted parliament elected him Prime Minister in 2019. The 66-year-old Prayuth rejected the demonstrators’ call for his resignation and called on parliament to help resolve the conflict.

The king: Maha Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun, 68, one of the richest men in the world, came to the throne in 2016 after the death of his father, the revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who ruled for seven decades. Since Maha Vajiralongkorn became king, he spent most of the time in Germany and returned to Thailand for a relatively short time. He asserted his authority by taking personal control of the crown property and proposing amendments to the constitution after voters ratified them in a 2016 junta-controlled referendum.

The royalists: Supporters of the monarchy, often recognizable by their yellow shirts, have taken to the streets in smaller numbers to counter the student protesters who sometimes run into them. Protesters have posted videos online showing they are showing royalists attacking them.

They call on Mr. Prayuth to resign, revise the constitution and place the king under constitutional authority.

They are also calling for the dissolution of Parliament, the same body that Mr Prayuth elected as Prime Minister and that he asked to resolve the current conflict.

Their boldest call is to limit the power of the monarchy, which for the past 88 years has seldom faced a challenge. Among other things, they want the king to return control of tens of billions of dollars worth of crown assets and give up direct control over certain units of the Thai army.

The badge: In September, thousands of demonstrators gathered in Bangkok for the largest democracy rally ever. Afterwards, a group placed a plaque near the royal palace with the three-finger salute on it and read: “This is where the people expressed their will that this land belongs to the people and not the property of the monarchy is how she betrayed us. “Officials removed the badge soon after.

The Queen’s Motorcade: During a protest in Bangkok on October 14, a limousine carrying Queen Suthida Vajiralongkorn Na Ayudhya unexpectedly drove past a crowd of protesters. Some shouted “My taxes” and gave the three-finger salute. Several demonstrators were later arrested and face severe penalties under an obscure law prohibiting “an act of violence against the queen’s freedom”. The government issued an emergency decree banning gatherings of more than four people and sanctioning media that were believed to have disseminated false information.

Water cannons used: When thousands of protesters occupied the shopping streets in Bangkok on October 16, police dispersed them with water cannons and sprayed liquid containing blue dye and a chemical irritant. Horrified by this tactic, the demonstrators ignored the emergency decree and turned out to be in even greater numbers for rallies in the days that followed. Mr. Prayuth overturned the emergency decree on October 22nd, the day after acknowledging that using water cannons would not make Thailand a “better society”.

Richard C. Paddock reported from Bangkok and Emmett Lindner from New York. Muktita Suhartono contributed to coverage from Bangkok.

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