A Push for Democracy Threatens to Upend the Status Quo in Thailand
Beginning in February, tens of thousands of pro-democracy student activists across Thailand have assembled to protest the current military-backed government, led by Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha. Despite public emergency measures issued by the government on October 15, protesters have continued to demand reforms, including a new constitutional role for Thailand’s King Maha Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun. The new emergency orders: mandate a 6 pm curfew; outlaw public gatherings of more than four people; and impose harsh media restrictions. Since July, the movement’s growing coalition has engineered the largest and most consistent demonstrations in Thailand’s modern history, challenging its authoritarian political system and the king’s place in society and government.
Political and economic upheaval is nothing new in Thailand. Protests in 2010 led to widespread government crackdowns and dozens of demonstrators’ deaths. However, these rallies represent an inspiring and collaborative challenge to the political status quo and Thailand’s entrenched autocratic institutions. Tech savvy millennial and student protestors have found international allies using social media and other platforms to draw support from fellow pro-democracy protestors in Hong Kong, Nigeria, and Belarus. Thai activists have also utilized crowd funding sites to purchase protective gear, umbrellas, and medical supplies.
The current government, led by PM Prayuth, has responded to the enduring, peaceful protests by further restricting basic civil liberties. After announcing emergency limitations on free expression and assembly in mid-October, police crackdowns targeted prominent movement leaders, resulting in the arrest of over 20 individuals. Media outlets have also been heavily censored and prevented from broadcasting criticism of the government or support for the demonstrations. According to Thai Royal Police Spokesman, Maj. Gen. Yingyos Thepjumnong, simply posting a picture or checking-in from a protest site on social media can mean up to two years in prison.
Police have also moved swiftly to detain prominent activists, whose online presences have helped provide public symbols for a movement lacking formal leadership. According to the civil liberties group Thai Lawyers for Human Rights, 80 protestors have been arrested since the state of emergency decree. Among them is human rights lawyer Anon Nampa, who started publicly breaking the taboo of criticizing Thailand’s monarchy — a crime with penalties of up to 15 years in prison. Nampa and 21-year old student Panusaya Sithijirawattanakul published a now famous ten-point manifesto in August. The document seen as revolutionary by Thailand watchers and condemned by royal media outlets demanded the right to criticize the monarchy and the need for greater public oversight over the royal family’s finances. Despite the movement’s unified demand for democratic reform, many demonstrators have fallen short of calling for the outright creation of a republic – instead seeking to balance the monarchy’s role in society and retaining its status as a symbol of stability.
The current political upheaval lays bare the long entrenched generational divide between older, traditional citizens and younger voters pushing for liberal reform. After Thailand’s previous military coup in 2006, supporters of deposed former Prime Minister Thaksin began the pro-democracy “Red Shirt” movement – formally known as the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD). Between 2009 – 2010, UDD demonstrations advocated for similar democratic reforms currently supported by today’s pro-democracy movement but stopped short of breaking laws and social norms against criticizing the monarchy directly or calling for constitutional changes. The current protests have included many former UDD members, however the hesitation to condemn Thailand’s monarchy and the role of the royal family in politics directly is gone. Although Thailand’s absolute monarchy was abolished in 1932, the royal family has been revered culturally and politically, with strict “lese majeste” laws setting harsh prison sentences for those convicted of insulting the king or his family.
In 2014, the current prime minister organized a military coup while serving as Army Chief General, consolidating military and monarchy control of government. In 2017, the military junta ratified a deeply controversial constitution which placed the entire Senate under military appointment and institutionally obstructed any potential political consolidation under popular parties. During the five years following the 2014 takeover, then General Prayuth failed to call elections until March 2019. International observers condemned last year’s parliamentary elections, highlighting institutional barriers to opposition voices in media as well as persistent confusion with official election results. Unsurprisingly, Prayuth was reinstalled as prime minister under the new constitution.
Despite the odds against a free electoral contest, young and first-time voters mobilized behind the pro-democracy Future Forward Party (FFP), granting them the third-largest share of parliamentary seats. In the face of their growing popularity, the Thai Constitutional Court dissolved the FFP in late February 2020 citing specious claims of campaign-finance violations committed by the party’s founder, Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit.
At their core, protesters seek to dismantle the military stranglehold on the Thai political system and to reform the monarchy’s governing role in society. Demands include: the resignation of prime minister Prayuth; the creation of a legitimate constitution; and free and fair elections. Demonstrators have also called for the release of detained pro-democracy activists, like Wanchalearm Satsaksit, who was kidnapped in June while living in Cambodia – leading many to suspect the involvement of Thai agents.
The rallies show no signs of subsiding and are bolstered by social media mobilization and growing international support. Thailand’s government and the king would be wise to recognize both the moral and practical benefits of introducing liberal reforms and securing basic human liberties. Thailand’s future prosperity in the 21st century will be determined by its ability to commit to the rule of law and the protection of individual liberties – values that have created unprecedented opportunities for transitioning societies for decades. This ALEC article highlights Malaysia’s as a regional example in pivoting away from corrupt, autocratic governance while reforming institutions, like their monarchy. This balance can prove crucial for ensuring stability and creating an environment that promotes economic growth while responding to unprecedented demands for freedom.