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Thai democracy

Amid politics and pandemic, Thai democracy movement attempts revival

By late 2020, the Thai pro-democracy movement looked set to bring about major changes. But in the months since, legal warfare from authorities and a public health crisis has ground protests to a halt. Now, activists are returning to the streets, but is momentum gone?

June 29, 2021
Amid politics and pandemic, Thai democracy movement attempts revival
A brass plaque with the message, ‘Here on 24 June 1932 at dawn, the People's Party proclaimed a constitution for the country's advancement’. Photo: Wanpen Pajai

On top of a pickup truck was a brass plaque with the message, ‘Here on 24 June 1932 at dawn, the People’s Party proclaimed a constitution for the country’s advancement’, enlarged to a hundred times of the original. In view behind the truck was the newly minted parliament building, expected to be the world’s biggest, with its golden chedi glistening.

The grand parliament was the final destination as Thailand’s pro-democracy protests returned to the streets on June 24 after a three-month break. It signalled the comeback of some of the movement’s key leaders, granted bail in recent months, while also marking the 89th anniversary of the June 24, 1932 revolution that transformed Thailand from an absolute to constitutional monarchy. 

In the morning, movement leaders Parit “Penguin” Chiwarak, Jatupat “Pai” Boonpattararaksa, and Panusaya “Rung” Sithijirawattanakul attempted to deliver a constitutional reform document to MPs at the parliament building, flanked by hundreds of protestors. Crowds have significantly thinned from earlier protests that made headlines last year, with one of the largest being an October 14 protest that drew over 100,000, according to organisers. 

Making a brief speech to the crowd, they chanted “250 senators, get out!”, before holding up the three-finger salute – a symbol originating in Thai protest culture but today more widely associated with activism next door in Myanmar.

Last year, Thailand saw the youth-led, pro-democracy movement reaching new heights with protestors filling the streets of Bangkok for weeks in the year’s latter half, calling for reform of the military-dominated government and constitution, and breaking long-held taboos surrounding speech on the monarchy. But as the government struck back with force, as well as a spree of lawsuits against key activists starting in November, the movement dimmed. 

By the end of 2020, after months-long physical demonstrations, many of the demonstrators’ demands were not met as parliament discarded most constitutional reform proposals. With this, the leaders announced that the movement would take a break. Now, with physical demonstrations starting again with this recent outing, all are united in their calls for Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha to resign – however, divisions remain as to whether to resume the taboo-pushing criticism of the monarchy that previously caught the world’s attention. 

For Thitinan Pongsudhirak, political scientist at Chulalongkorn University and director of the Institute of Security and International Studies, there have been many factors that have caused the pro-democracy movement to lose momentum. 

“Its good and effective run from June to November struck a chord of popular grievances, but the authorities were shrewd to bide their time,” he explained. 

“Sustaining such a young movement without experience was also difficult because the rank-and-file eventually had pressing matters to attend to, such as classes, exams, job searches and so on.”

Much smaller crowds are seen at the protest on June 24. Photo: Wanpen Pajai

Though the movement has risked fizzling out entirely amid political and public health pressures in recent months, activists at the latest rally insisted the fight continues. Among them was Rung, recently granted bail after being detained for 59 days awaiting trial on lese majeste and sedition charges. 

The bail is tied to the condition that she does not do anything deemed to damage the monarchy and remains in-country. Attending the June 24 rally, Rung told the Globe she’d continue protesting regardless of the conditions imposed. 

“We will continue with our fight. That everyone that just came out of jail, is still in jail, or has not been jailed yet – we all insist that we will continue fighting for the three demands,” she said. The three demands include constitutional reform, the removal of 250 military-appointed senators in parliament, and the resignation of Prime Minister Prayuth. 

But despite the determination of student leaders, gatherings have withered as the government ups its response. Already, activists have received lese majeste charges and further conditions tied to their bail, making it difficult to move around. Immediately after the June 24 event, protestors were met with charges for violating the emergency decree and traffic laws. 

In this way, legal charges have stamped out many of the key activists. With some stuck in jail and some out, the hollow spots across the pro-democracy movement’s key leaders have weakened their game. According to the Thai Lawyers for Human Rights group, 100 people now face lèse-majesté charges due to online political expression and participation in the pro-democracy demonstrations from August last year up to March this year. Out of these charged individuals, eight are under the age of 18. 

“There’s fear from past experiences of being threatened. I’ve faced many things from legal threats to online harassment,” Benja Apan, a 21-year-old student at Thammasat University, told the Globe.  

She emerged as another key student leader as other leaders of the United Front of Thammasat and Demonstration, now known as the Ratsadon group, were jailed. Benja led the protest on March 24 with thousands gathered, calling for the government to “free her friends”, with herself charged with four cases under Article 112 criminalising royal defamation. 

“But if asked if I’m afraid, when I compare the fear to the things I believe in, the desire to see the country move forward is stronger,” Benja said.  

However, for many others, the risk of being charged has grown too large to step out to the same extent as they once did. Under lèse-majesté, Penguin has been charged with at least 20 cases and Rung at least nine cases. With sentences under Article 112 ranging from three to 15 years in prison, Penguin could face up to 300 years in jail if convicted.

“The demonstrated ‘lawfare’ and blatant use of legal means to sideline and silence core leaders and intimidate others also became effective,” professor Thitinan told the Globe

Panusaya “Rung” Sithijirawattanakul. Photo: Wanpen Pajai

As daily infection counts hit record highs, the resurgence of Covid-19 in Thailand since April has been another reason for the decline in protests. But though the third wave has cleared the kingdom’s streets of protestors, it has also compounded criticism of the government. 

According to the National Institute of Development Administration opinion survey, to the question which politician the Thai public supported to be prime minister, Prayuth’s popularity dropped steadily from an approval rating of about 30.3% in December 2020, to 28.79% in March 2021. By June, that rating had fallen to 19.32%. 

The drop aligns with the mismanagement of Covid-19 that saw the third wave rising from a nightclub cluster attended by hi-so, or high-profile tycoons and politicians. Now, Thailand has more than 249,000 cases and nearly 2,000 deaths as of publishing. 

Shifting from last year, public criticism has been more targeted towards the Prayuth administration’s management of the country during the pandemic, as opposed to the messaging in last year’s protests targeting long-established taboos on commenting about the royal institution. 

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This perhaps represents a crossroads for the movement, as to whether it dares to continue pursuing reform of the all-powerful monarchy, or doubles down its efforts on the parliamentary government. So far in the movement’s comeback, protestors merely implied criticism but stayed clear from mentioning reforms to the royal institution. 

“The main limitation [of charges placed against protestors] is not being allowed to do harm to the royal institution,” Rung said. Since release, Rung has said imprisoned protest leaders will continue to fight for monarchy reform, though possibly in different formats.

“Every time we have spoken, we have never degraded the monarchy by any means. We only give our suggestions on how we want to see the royal institution improve, in what directions. It’s in the 10-point reform that the Thammasat group has put forth.” 

The 10-point reform was read out by Rung back in August last year, with the inclusion of royal reforms resulting in the filing of lese majeste charges against her by authorities. This rhetoric represents a divide in the pro-democracy movement, says Thitinan. 

“The internal split between a more radical wing and others in favour of monarchy reforms in a compromising fashion also undermined the movement,” he said. 

Another divide has drawn along the use of force. With the majority of protests last year being non-violent, some have wanted them to escalate in response to the government’s use of force at protests in November last year. 

“The fight is going on longer than some people expected and they want to escalate, but the activist group who are organising the protests are not escalating. And there is also the argument that, we cannot use force, we have to use peaceful means and non-violence,” said Anna Lawattanatrakul, a reporter with publication Prachatai, who has been covering the protests

“So, there’s this idea that it’s taking quite a long time. Some people are tired, some people want to do more, and it’s causing arguments. And this, combined with everything, slowed down the momentum.”

Photo: Wanpen Pajai

While eyes may be on the youth protest movement, groups of older, veteran demonstrators from Thailand’s Red and Yellow shirts movement have appeared to put aside their past streetfights to join forces around a shared cause.

On June 24, there were also protests in Bangkok’s Dusit district led by the Prachachon Khon Thai group headed by Nitithorn Lamlua, a former leader of the conservative, royalist Yellow Shirts; and Samakkhi Prachachon led by Jatuporn Prompan, leader of the former United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship, the anti-military Red Shirts.

These groups still have few views in common, but today are united in a common enemy. Nitithorn was out defending the monarchy from student’s reform calls last year, but his group has now joined with former Red rivals to call for the resignation of the Prayuth administration due to its perceived incompetence in managing Thailand, therefore jeopardising the king. 

Prayuth’s resignation is a point the seasoned protestors also share with their more-youthful counterparts. Both of their recent protests come amidst parliament’s ongoing discussion on amendments to the military-drafted 2017 constitution, fundamental to Prayuth’s hold on power.

Among the proposals, one reform that was passed is to return the electoral system back to a party list, two-ballot voting system, a reversal of the 2017 constitution which is seen as favouring larger parties. But with parliament ruling out most of the radical constitutional reform ideas brought forth by the pro-democracy movement last year, protestors remain adamant in their calls for change to the current charter. 

“The youth movement for political change is likely to come back because their grievances and demands for accountability, social equality, better government performance, and collective ownership of the country ring truer than ever,” said Thitinan. 

If I no longer had hope, I wouldn’t be here. Do what you believe in and believe in what you do. I believe that this country can be a full-fledged democracy and we also believe that the power belongs to the people

But though the protest movement has lost momentum, the student activists at the forefront believe that change has already been felt throughout society. Though it takes time, the speeches and points made during last year’s protest linger on.

For Prachatai reporter Anna, it’s noticeable in the dialogue around her. 

“There’s been changes in the way people talk, especially amongst young people, now focusing more on structural problems and systematic issues in society. They are more willing to point out these issues and criticise the government and say, these are what needs to be fixed,” she said. 

It’s yet to be seen if the movement will recover over the next six months to the same extent as last year. The government has announced it’s 120 day countdown for the country’s reopening to foreign tourists, landing in October, which is also a month with many Thai political anniversaries. 

But what’s clear is that the June 24 rally signals that though the movement may have lost its mass mobilisation, the leading dissenting voices are still there attempting a revival.  

“If I no longer had hope, I wouldn’t be here. Do what you believe in and believe in what you do. I believe that this country can be a full-fledged democracy and we also believe that the power belongs to the people,” said Benja. 

“Our society has come a long way since the Revolution in 1932. We have travelled far in the past 89 years. To go a little further, what would be the harm?” 



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