Authorities in Thailand are stepping up harassment against supporters of the country’s pro-democracy movement, but the scale and scope of recent protests show this may only strengthen calls for reform.
As pro-democracy protests in Thailand continue, a growing number of student organizers are facing arrest and suppression.
At least 76 people have been subject to intimidation and surveillance, with many of them also confronting legal harassment and a number now facing court cases and arrests, according to Thai Lawyers for Human Rights.
Students across the country have held rallies since mid-July to demand the dissolution of Parliament, an end to harassment by authorities and a new constitution—three key steps advocated by the Free Youth movement. Protestors have also called for queer legal rights and for the legalization of sex work.
The protests have gained traction because of their scale as well as their tactics. A demonstration in Bangkok on August 16 drew over 10,000 people, becoming the largest protest the country has seen since its most recent military coup in 2014.
The near-daily rallies across the country have also drawn on cultural references to poke fun at the military-dominated regime: from Harry Potter and “he who must not be named”, to the anime hamster Hamtaro, to pomelos, to drag-inspired performances, to washing dishes featuring the face of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha—a response to a Facebook post by a military-backed lawmaker claiming “everyone wants to help the country, but no one wants to help mom wash dishes.”
In early August, activists also began calling for reform of Thailand’s monarchy—a potentially dangerous move that could carry a lengthy prison sentence under the country’s lese majeste law.
While no lese majeste charges have been filed, police have used a series of other laws to target the movement’s organizers, arresting them and charging them with sedition, computer crimes or other vaguely-defined offenses.
Young human rights lawyer Anon Nampa was arrested for the second time earlier this week. Soon after, Thai rapper Dechathorn “Hockey” Bamrungmuang, a founder of the group Rap Against Dictatorship, was detained.
These arrests signal an attempt by authorities to both disable the movement by arresting its leadership and to silence the pro-democracy movement through intimidation. But the youth movement in Thailand is dispersed and has no formal leaders—independent media outlet Prachatai recently reported 17 youth-led protests by groups around the country planned for a single week. With high school students now organizing their own protests, increasing harassment by authorities will only spark further calls for reform.
Protestors broach monarchy taboo in conversations on democracy
Previous protest movements in Thailand have largely left the monarchy out of their demands, but at a rally on a campus of Thammasat University on August 10, Student Union of Thailand spokeswoman Panusaya Sithijirawattanakul read out a 10-point manifesto. Following the event, she was tailed and harassed by police.
According to her and thousands of people across the country, the monarchy must be accountable to the elected government in order for Thailand to move towards democracy.
The students’ demands focus on basic steps—to establish freedom of expression, reform the monarchy’s use of public funds and end royal propaganda, among others. They also ask that the monarchy not endorse any future coups—the country’s dozen or more military juntas in modern times have all gone to the king to receive his blessing as they took power.
But for Thailand, these reforms would represent a veritable revision of the state and its relationship to the public.
This week, the government forced Facebook to block access to the group “Royalist Marketplace,” which allows open discussion of the Thai monarchy. As exiled Thai academic Pavin Chachavalpongpun, the group’s founder, said afterward, “Let’s fight bitch.”
Protestors face targeted harassment
Another of the leaders at the Thammasat University rally on August 10, Panupong “Mike” Jadnok, was arrested on Monday in the coastal city of Rayong—it was at least his fourth arrest in recent months.
Police detained Panupong as he held a sign in protest of a land development project: “1,000-rai sea reclamation—what will Rayong people get?” (a rai is a measure of land area used in Thailand equal to 1,600 square meters) as the prime minister came to visit the area.
The series of arrests against Panupong, like those of Panusaya and Nampa, shows how police target pro-democracy organizers.
On July 15, Panupong and another student, Natchanon “Non” Payakaphan, were arrested for holding signs during Prayut’s visit to Rayong over a possible coronavirus outbreak—Thailand has reported no local transmission of COVID-19 for months.
Panupong held a sign telling the prime minister to “Keep his guard up”—a reference to health authorities’ constant reminders to the Thai public to do the same. Natchanon held a sign that read, “If you stay, the country will be in ruins.” Both of the signs included crude or abrasive language.
As a result of the July incident, Panupong faces charges of obstructing police, fleeing from authorities and violating the emergency decree and the Communicable Disease Act.
“When Prayut left Rayong, the police left us alone. We went to the hospital to have the doctor check on our injuries that happened when the police were manhandling us,” he told Thisrupt. “We then decided to sue the police for unlawful detention, kidnapping, physical assaults, and abuse of authority.”
On August 7, Panupong was again arrested over his role in a Free Youth rally in Bangkok on July 18.
But the authorities’ recent attempts to silence Panupong date back to June, if not earlier. On June 16, he was arrested under the country’s COVID-19 Emergency Decree over a rally calling for accountability for the recent abduction of democracy advocate Wanchalearm Satsaksit in Cambodia.
Panupong’s latest batch of charges include sedition, computer crimes, violating disease control laws and using loudspeakers without permission.
“The authorities have the power to do whatever they want to us. There is no justice for the people,” he said.