Thailand: A Series of Year-Long Pro-Democracy Protests

Since last year, an unprecedented wave of protests has swept across Thailand. Thousands of people have been calling for reform of the country’s constitution, the resignation of the prime minister, and more.

Pro-democracy protests led by students at Bangkok’s Democracy Monument were one of the biggest anti-government rallies that the country has seen since the military seized power six years ago. Over 10,000 anti-government protesters took to the streets calling for reform of the country’s monarchy.

Throughout its history, Thailand has witnessed many protests. It has a long past of political unrest. However, this new wave began in 2020.


Why are the protests happening?

The initial protests were triggered in February last year after a court ordered a fledgling pro-democracy opposition party to dissolve. The opposition pro-democracy party is called Future Forward Party (FFP), which proved particularly popular with young, first-time voters. It garnered the third-largest share of parliamentary seats in the March 2019 election. This election was won by the incumbent military leadership.

The February 2020 demonstration was the first round of protest. It came to an end following the introduction of Covid-19 induced restrictions on gatherings. Protests were re-energized in June when a prominent pro-democracy activist Wanchalearm Satsaksit went missing in Cambodia, and since mid-July, there have been regular student-led street protests.

According to the BBC, he had been in exile since the 2014 military coup. His whereabouts remain unknown, and this heightened tensions in the country.

Dozens of protesters outside the Cambodian embassy in Bangkok demanded an investigation into the disappearance of the activist, reported Reuters. They accused the Thai state of orchestrating Satsaksit’s kidnapping, which Thailand’s police and government have denied.

“I want the Thai government to protect people who are living abroad whether they are political exiles or not,” said protester Tattep Ruangprapaikitseree.

Thai activists with placards showing the abducted Thai anti-government activist Wanchalerm Satsaksit in Bangkok on June 12. Credit: Athit Perawongmetha/Reuters

Protestors demand that the government headed by Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-Ocha be dissolved. They furthermore call for the constitution to be rewritten, a constitution that ensures more freedoms and civil rights. The demonstrators also demand an end to the intimidation of rights activists, that the authorities stop harassing critics, and a reduction in the influence of the monarchy.


What is the problem with the monarchy in Thailand?

According to the Guardian, defaming the royal family is punishable by up to fifteen years in prison under Thailand’s lese majeste laws. It has been present in Thai criminal codes since the early 1900s when Thailand was known as Siam.

“Section 112 of the country’s penal code states that whoever defames, insults or threatens the King, the Queen, the heir-apparent or the Regent,” could face imprisonment of between three to fifteen years, as per The Independent.

After King Maha Vajiralongkorn took the throne in 2016, the palace required revisions to a new constitution that gave him greater emergency powers. Since then, he has taken personal control over some army units as well as palace assets worth tens of billions of dollars.

Some Thai activists complain of harassment by authorities. They say that at least nine opposition figures living abroad have disappeared. Two were later found dead, Reuters has not independently confirmed what happened to these opposition figures.

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In June 2020, Prayuth said in a speech that there have been no prosecutions under the ‘lese majeste’ laws recently, at the king’s request. However, he did warn against criticizing the monarchy.

As per Al Jazeera, since Prayuth led a coup in 2014, more than ninety people have been prosecuted under the lese majeste law, and at least forty-three of them have been sentenced, reports Bangkok Post.

The king is described in the country’s constitution as “enthroned in a position of revered worship” and the Thai royalist traditionalists see the monarchy as a sacred institution, reports Al Jazeera.

King Maha Vajiralongkorn has taken significant steps to consolidate the monarchy’s financial and military power

The monarchy has deep roots in Thailand. Kings held absolute power for hundreds of years before a 1932 revolution in the country. Since then, Thailand has been a constitutional monarchy with the king as the head of state. King Maha retains a powerful and influential role.

The current king’s father, the highly-revered Bhumibol Adulyadej had also remarked in 2005 that the government should stop invoking the lese majeste law. He said it damages the monarchy as an institution.


Prosecutions under the ‘lese majeste’

According to the Thai Lawyers for Human Rights group, there were only occasional prosecutions before 2014, when Prayuth took power in a coup and many of those convicted at the time were pardoned by the then-King Bhumibol. But between the 2014 coup and early 2018, at least ninety-eight lese majeste charges were filed, according to a legal database by Thai watchdog iLaw.

Human rights groups said many of those cases were used to persecute opponents to the military government. This is an allegation the military government denied. Among those prosecutions, there was one for defaming the late king’s pet dog too. One man has been accused of “liking” a Facebook page deemed insulting to the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej and posting a sarcastic photo of his pet dog as per CNN.

Pro-democracy activists Panusaya Sithijirawattanakul, left, and Parit Chiwarak raises a three-finger salute as they walk to Pathumwan police station in Bangkok, Thailand, January 20, 2021.  © 2021 AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit


A high-profile lese majeste case was in 2011, of a 61-year-old Thai man, Ampon Tangnoppakul. Tangnoppakul was sentenced to twenty years in prison for allegedly sending four text messages deemed to have been offensive to the royal family. The following year, Ampon died of liver cancer in prison, still claiming he was innocent of all charges.

March 2018’s prosecution against two men for trying to burn pictures of the king is the most recent royal insult case prosecution. This is according to Thai Lawyers for Human Rights. A local court dropped the royal insult charge. But, they found both the men guilty of being part of a criminal organization and arson.

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According to the lese majeste law, anyone can file a complaint against others without being the damaged party. It is a provision that critics say is being abused by royalists and the current government.

Rights groups also said opponents of the government have recently been charged under other laws. These include laws such as those against sedition and computer crimes.

Last year, three exiled Thai activists facing charges of insulting the monarchy disappeared in Vietnam after reportedly being arrested over there. The three were reportedly turned over by Vietnam to Thai authorities, according to Human Rights Watch. The Thai government has denied the report.

Also in January 2019, the concrete-stuffed bodies of two exiled critics of the military and the royal family were discovered along the Mekong River border with Laos.The government has said it does not target opponents. They added that it is the responsibility of the police to uphold the law. But with protests growing even larger, the government is scrambling to find ways to contain dissent. It is raising fears of more crackdowns.


Harry Potter-themed protest

In August 2020, speakers at an anti-government protest in Thailand demanded reforms to the monarchy of King Maha Vajiralongkorn. They called for its powers to be curbed in unusually frank public comments. The Thai who once discussed the grievances privately in the confines of their homes were now airing them publicly over speakerphones to thousands of people.

Many of the demonstrators among the two hundred protesters were dressed like Harry Potter as well as other characters of the popular franchise. Some protest leaders say it represents the fight to remove the military from politics and protect the peoples’ rights and freedoms.

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Led by people on stage, protesters sang a Thai version of “Do You Hear The People Sing?” from ‘Les Miserables’ which became a core anthem of Hong Kong’s anti-government protests that rocked the city for six months in 2019.

Protesters also flashed the three-fingered salute from the “Hunger Games” movie franchise. It has become a symbol of defiance against the Thai government since the 2014 military coup.

Protesters hold wands in the air during a Harry Potter-themed anti-government rally at the Democracy Monument in Bangkok in August. Lillian Suwanrampha / AFP via Getty Images

One high school girl attended the protest in her school uniform along with her boyfriend who used gaffer tape to cover the name of their school to hide their identities.

“I really wanted to join the protest, my parents don’t know I am here. If I told them they would have stopped me,” said the girl, who didn’t give her name for fear of reprisals. “I want Thailand to be (a place) with more freedom of speech. We are not brainwashed, we know what is happening in Thailand.”

Her boyfriend, who didn’t want to give his name either, said, “Our country doesn’t belong to just one single group of like-minded people.” “We should be able to be different and have our own thoughts.”

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Wanting a fresh kind of politics, young people made their mark on the 2019 elections. They turned out to vote for new, progressive, pro-democracy parties but they were thwarted in part by a military-drafted constitution. One that enabled the generals to keep hold of power via the Senate led by an unelected Prime Minister.

The military-backed ruling coalition promised to restore stability to a nation rocked by decades of coups and political crises. Yet many of the country’s young people feel Prayut’s government has done little to improve their economic prospects, restore democracy, or build confidence in the people, reports CNN

“There are so many injustices in this country,” the high school student said. “The poor are getting poorer, how can people without enough money afford a good education. It is impossible.”


Taking it public

Anon Nampa, a 34-year-old lawyer, accused the palace of taking on increasing powers that undermined democracy and of inaction in the face of attacks on opponents of the government of prime minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, a former junta leader, reports Reuters Staff.

“Talking about this is not an act to topple the monarchy, but to allow the monarchy to exist in Thai society in the right way and legitimately under a democratic and a constitutional monarchy,” Anon told the group of around 200 at Bangkok’s Democracy Monument.

On August 10, things took a turn when a  protest at Bangkok’s Thammasat University laid out a ten-point call for reform to the monarchy that boils down to ensuring a genuine constitutional monarchy. It places the monarch under the constitution and the Police did not stop the six speakers but said any suspected offenses would be investigated.

Protesters gather around a fellow pro-democracy activist to wash his face after police fired water cannons laced with pepper on October 16. Jack Taylor/AFP/Getty Images

This move sent shockwaves through the country. Since birth, the people in Thailand were taught to revere and love the monarchy and fear the consequences of talking about it.

Pavin Chachavalpongpun is an associate professor at the Center for Southeast Asian Studies at Kyoto University. “It’s very radical and could be a turning point,” Chachavalpongpun said of the calls for royal reform. Thailand “has long had a tradition of putting the monarchy above everything else. The monarchy is revered, you have to love it unconditionally,” Pavin, an exiled Thai dissident himself continued.

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Two student groups then read out demands. They started with: “Cancelling and reforming the laws that expand the power of the monarch and that could impinge on democracy where the king is the head of state.”

Ratchada Thanadirek who is the spokeswoman for the Deputy government said it was up to the police whether to act against the protesters. “The government wants the young protesters to observe the laws so that they can continue to exercise their rights to make their demands and the country can stay peaceful,” she said.

Parit “Penguin” Chiwarak, 22, a student and one of the leaders of the pro-democracy movement, is allowed by police to read a 10-point manifesto on reforming the monarchy. LightRocket/Getty Images

The students from Mahanakorn and Kaset universities also called on the authorities to amend and reform the ‘lese majeste’ laws banning criticism of the monarchy. Some placards have made a veiled criticism of the monarchy before. However, this was the first time it had been open.

A police officer, Surapong Thammapitak, said: “We cannot yet determine what offenses have been committed.” “Any offenses under any laws will be processed for the investigators,” Thammapitak stated.

The young woman who delivered the manifesto, Panusaya Sithijirawattanakul, has said their intention “is not to destroy the monarchy but to modernize it, to adapt it to our society”.

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According to the BBC, she and her fellow activists have been accused of “Chung chart”. It is a Thai term meaning “hatred of the nation”. They say they are deeply fearful of the consequences of doing “the right thing” by speaking out.

Criticism was exceedingly rare under the king’s father, King Bhumibol Adulyadej. His seventy-year reign ended with his death in 2016.

“Such open criticism of Thailand’s monarch by non-elites at a public place within Thailand — with the police simply standing by — is the first of its kind in Thai history,” said Paul Chambers. Chambers, who teaches international affairs at Thailand’s Naresuan University added, “It is important to understand that, with a large group of demonstrators demanding monarchical reform, the cat is out of the bag for the first time, meaning that henceforth monarchical reform is a valid demand for Thai demonstrators.”


What happened in 2021

Confrontations between protesters and the police grew increasingly violent this year as Thai people took to the streets despite a new Covid-19 outbreak that threw the country into lockdown. Recent demonstrations have turned violent, with security forces using tear gas. They also used water cannons and rubber bullets against protesters who threw stones and firecrackers.

In September 2021, Reuters reported that Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-Ocha and five cabinet ministers comfortably survived a vote of no confidence in parliament over the four days when lawmakers accused his government of mishandling the pandemic.

They criticized him for the severe economic impact, aiming for the government’s slow vaccine rollout. The latter was a result of not making advance vaccine orders and deciding not to join the international COVAX vaccine-supply scheme.

Demonstrators use inflatable rubber ducks as shields to protect themselves from water cannons during a demonstration outside the parliament in Bangkok, as lawmakers debate constitutional changes, on November 17. Athit Perawongmetha/Reuters

The vaccine rollout began in June. It was amidst the country’s most severe outbreak with people unable to find medical treatment and some also dying at home.

The Thailand Prime Minister survived another no-confidence motion in the parliament along with nine ministers in February 2021. The results came after the four-day censure debate with protests calling for his resignation set to resume.

“The vote shows that there is confidence,” said Chuan Leekpai, president of the National Assembly, while announcing the result. It was announced amid allegations that the “government mismanaged the economy, bungled the provision of COVID-19 vaccines, abused human rights and fostered corruption.”

This wasn’t their first no-confidence test since taking office in July 2019, following a contested election after Prayuth seized power in a 2014 coup as the army chief as he defeated a no-confidence vote in the lower house easily with five cabinet ministers in February last year.

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In the second motion, Prayuth’s government was also criticized for misusing its power to promote police officials, among other complaints. There was a more serious allegation that he had deepened divisions in society by using the monarchy as a shield against criticism of his government and was criticized for establishing a cyber-unit to attack government critics on social media.

“The biggest fault of Prayuth is that he does not understand the principles of the constitutional monarchy,” said Pita Limjaroenrat. “He used the monarchy to protect himself whenever he was criticized or opposed. This is an evil action, making him no longer qualified to be prime minister,” Limjaroenrat, leader of the opposition Move Forward Party added.

Pita’s accusation refers to the enforcement of Article 112 in the criminal code. Article 112 is also known as the lese majeste law. According to Thai Lawyers for Human Rights, at least fifty-nine people including several minors were summoned under the law between November and February, reported Reuters.

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Four well-known protesters including human rights lawyer Arnon Nampa, student leader Parit Chiwarak, and political activists Somyos Prueksakasemsuk and Patiwat Saraiyaem were prosecuted under the law and on sedition charges.

According to Bloomberg, Thailand’s parliament unlocked a process for an overhaul of the constitution, in which lawmakers in the Senate and the Lower House voted to endorse a bill that would pave the way for a public poll on rewriting the charter.

The ballot followed a Constitutional Court decision in March that ruled a referendum must be held before any overhaul. This delayed a process sought by protesters for a more democratic charter.

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