What is happening in Thailand?
An unprecedented wave of protests has swept across Thailand over recent months, led by high school and university students who are calling for major democratic reforms. Some have also broken a longstanding taboo, and risked prison sentences, to demand the power and wealth of the country’s monarchy be curbed.
Why have protests erupted now?
Young people say they are fed up with an establishment that has undermined their democratic rights and the country’s progress.
Demonstrations began on university campuses at the start of the year in response to a court decision to dissolve Future Forward, a prominent opposition party. The party was especially popular among young people during last year’s election – a vote that was supposed to return Thailand to democracy following a 2014 military coup but was instead marred by claims of irregularities, and which critics say was skewed in favour of the army.
The emergence of the coronavirus pandemic halted the demonstrations, but only temporarily. Under lockdown, frustration with the authorities mounted. While Thailand has managed to avoid a major coronavirus outbreak, the economic impact of the pandemic has been devastating, and has highlighted the country’s yawning gaps in equality.
Online, anger among protesters increasingly targeted the monarchy, with the hashtag “#whydoweneedaking?” posted more than a million times.
In June, discontent flared further when it was reported that pro-democracy activist Wanchalearm Satsaksi had been abducted in Cambodia. Rights groups say he is the ninth exiled activist to disappear in recent years. The government and military have denied involvement.
What do the protesters want?
One of the protesters’ slogans is “let it end with our generation”. They are tired of a cycle of coups that has dominated Thailand’s political history.
Students are mostly united around calls for the dissolution of parliament, an end to harassment of government critics, and for changes to the military-backed constitution.
Some have also called for reforms to the country’s powerful and wealthy monarchy, which they say is too close to the military and which they accuse of interfering in politics.
A recent protest organised by the United Front of Thammasat, which has issued 10 demands for monarchy reform, was attended by tens of thousands of people. The group has called for the king’s budget to be cut and for a separation of his private funds from the crown assets. They have also called for an end to laws that forbid criticism of the monarchy.
King Maha Vajiralongkorn assumed the throne following the death of his father, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, in 2016 and has since strengthened his authority, bringing the wealth of the crown and key army units under his direct control.
Is it illegal to criticise the king?
Thailand’s royal family is shielded from criticism by a strict lèse majesté law that carries a sentence of up to 15 years, though the prime minister, Prayuth Chan-ocha, has said the king requested that nobody be prosecuted under the law. Dozens of protesters have been charged with various other offences after taking part in protests in recent months, according to the group Thai Lawyers for Human Rights.
How have the authorities responded to the demands?
Prayuth has said he will consider some of the protesters’ demands regarding the constitution, but has said the monarchy should not be criticised.
The Royal Palace has made no comment on the protests and the demands for reform.
Rights groups say the authorities are attempting to contain the protests by arresting activists, and by pressuring universities and parents to stop students from demanding monarchy reform. The authorities have also ordered Facebook to geo-block content that is critical of the royal family, including a page that had more than a million members. The group’s creator, Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a self-exiled critic of the monarchy, has already set up a new page that has surpassed the last group’s previous membership.