After a lull during COVID-19 restrictions, new rounds of protests aimed at the military-backed regime show a continued unease with strong-arm democracy.
By Zachary Frye
On July 18, about 2,500 Thais protested near Bangkok’s Democracy Monument to show their opposition to the ruling government and Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha.
Chan-o-cha was the leader behind Thailand’s military coup in 2014 and ruled the country unelected until the country’s most recent general election in 2019, when the military-backed Palang Pracharat managed to hold on to power. The junta pushed through a constitution in 2017 that gave the military sole capacity to appoint members to the Senate—a key bloc needed to secure leadership and push through new laws.
Following the Bangkok protests, the smaller cities of Chiang Mai and Ubon Ratchathani saw hundreds of people turn out for rallies the next day. The newest wave of protests shows that a significant number of Thais, especially younger generations, continue to feel the country hasn’t achieved true democracy.
Protestors at the events had three main demands: amend the constitution to make it more democratic, dissolve parliament—which protestors see as mostly an arm of the military— and end harassment of government critics.
Over the past year, several incidents involving anti-government activists gained significant national attention, especially the assault of Sirawith Seritiwat, also known as Ja New, and the forced disappearance and possible murder of Wanchalearm Satsaksit in Cambodia in early June.
Police attempted to disrupt the recent protests, warning demonstrators that they were breaking government-mandated restrictions on gatherings during the coronavirus crisis.
As a part of the country’s response to COVID-19, Chan-o-cha and the Thai cabinet granted the prime minister emergency powers to enforce curfews and prohibit gatherings. Although Thailand is managing to prevent runaway coronavirus transmissions, there is concern that the ruling party could use the virus as an excuse to prolong these provisions beyond the necessary time frame.
Thai social media users are increasingly willing to voice dissent
During this weekend’s protests, a Thai Twitter hashtag that translates as “Free Youth,” referring to the anti-junta group that helped lead the events, garnered at least 3.5 million tweets. A related hashtag, #RespectDemocrayThai, saw some 1.2 million tweets during the protests.
While social media trends are notoriously opaque and don’t always give an accurate representation of support, the online attention to the democracy movement is in line with an increasingly brazen Thai internet.
Like several other countries in the region, Thailand has often made public dissent a dangerous endeavor—especially if directed at what some deem the pillars of the modern Thai state: the military and the royal family.
Given the current government’s inherent links to the military and support for Thailand’s king, many Thais approach public protest with caution.
Thailand recently halted prosecutions under its monarchy anti-defamation law, known as lese majeste, but the government has simply shifted gears, now criminalizing actions on social media to discourage dissent.
The 2017 Computer Crime Act carries penalties of up to 10 years in jail and fines up to 100,000 baht (US$3,150). According to Human Rights Watch, the law gives the government overly broad powers to surveil, censor and retaliate against government critics.
While its unclear how many people have been prosecuted under the law thus far, the government has been clear that it intends to continue to push back against online dissent.
Late last month, activist Thanet Anantawong was released after serving nearly four years in prison under the Computer Crime Act. In 2015, he made five Facebook posts that criticized the military government and army for alleged abuses of power.
Protests will almost certainly continue until stable democratic norms are established
Although the Thai government got high marks from the public for its handling of the coronavirus crisis earlier this year, the specter of prolonged economic hardship could put the government in an uneasy position.
For pro-democracy activism in Thailand, increasing inequality and a spotlight on anti-democratic norms could serve as springboard for a sustained movement.
At midnight on July 19, two leaders of the protests at Democracy Monument, Tattep Ruangprapaikitseree and Juthathip Sirikan, the secretary-general of the Free Youth group and chairwoman of the Student Union of Thailand, read a joint statement urging the government to heed their calls for reform.
If the government does not respond to the demands within two weeks, they warned that the pro-democracy movement would only intensify.
While there is little chance that the government will take the advice of the young protestors, the pro-democracy movement is unlikely to abate until legitimate democratic norms in Thailand are established and maintained.
The military’s old guard views its grip on power as a means to maintain a status quo social and political system for the sake of public harmony. For a growing number of younger Thais, that might not be enough.