"How can we be okay with this lack of democracy?" Activist Tattep Ruangprapaikit shouted at the top of his lungs during a recent protest in Bangkok. For more than two weeks, thousands of university students, high school students and activists have taken to the streets almost daily in various parts of Thailand to demand reforms that remove powers from the military and the sacrosanct monarchy. A daring movement in its demands that challenges the state of emergency - decreed by the pandemic and that prohibits mass gatherings - and the draconian law of lese majesty in force.
Some of the protesters speak out. "We are not trying to overthrow the monarchy, but to make it exist in a proper and legitimate way within a democratic system," 34-year-old lawyer and activist Anon Nampa proclaimed at a protest in Bangkok on Monday. Anon, quoted by Reuters, dared to directly condemn the institution's current role under King Maha Vajiralongkorn, who succeeded his father, the revered Bhumibol, after his death in 2016. The lawyer accused the institution of having increased their powers, due to the inaction of the government of the military Prayuth Chan-ocha. “I beg the people not to impose chaos. We are solving the problems together, ”Prayuth implored on Tuesday.
But the penalties of up to 15 years in prison against insults or threats to the king no longer seem to dissuade some Thais: the monarch, who isolated himself in a hotel in Germany with a score of concubines while his country decreed a state of emergency for the pandemic, has not done much to win the affection of its subjects. Added to his absences is the consolidation of his control over the Army and the Office of Royal Properties, the financial arm of the Thai monarchy - with assets valued at tens of billions of dollars -, until now managed independently. Some steps that have awakened the ghost of the absolutist monarchy, which was ended by a revolution in 1932, giving way to a constitutional monarchy that lived its period of glory during the reign of Bhumibol (1946-2016).
“Thai youth are saying they have had enough. They feel that their future has been squandered and that freedoms have disappeared under the government of Prayuth Chan-ocha, "says Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political scientist at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok. General Prayuth came to power after a coup in 2014, and he revalidated his mandate at the polls last year after a controversial election in which the young vote tended to support progressive opposition parties. The current protests started, in fact, when the Thai Constitutional Court ordered in February the dissolution of Anakot Mai (New Future), the party with the most momentum in recent years. The reformist training was led by businessman Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, very critical of the current government.
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After months of recess due to the impact of the coronavirus, young people returned to occupy the streets with force as a result of the relaxation of confinement measures last month, although the state of emergency is maintained and contemplates sentences of up to two years in prison for participants in protests. Unstoppable despite the regulations, in just two weeks there have been almost fifty demonstrations, which are repeated with the same demands: the dissolution of Parliament and the calling of new elections, the end of the harassment of government detractors and the approval of Amendments to the Constitution, considered the result of the 2014 coup, so that it does not preserve the influence of the Army over the Thai political system.
Some protests that have taken shape thanks to technology and social networks, instruments that have allowed them to spread in various parts of the country. Its participants have also found creative ways to identify themselves, using masks with the face of a Japanese animated character, Hamtaro, protesting against Voldemort from the Harry Potter saga or using the three-finger salute from the "Hunger Games" saga. against an authoritarian state. Although they do not have official leadership, many belong to student groups such as "Free Youth" and the "Union of Students of Thailand", especially outraged by the repression against government detractors.
Since the 2014 coup, at least nine Thai pro-democracy activists have been victims of "enforced disappearances", two of them brutally murdered, their bodies found mutilated in the Mekong River. Cases that have also been denounced by young people in the protests, which have been joined by participants of other ages and sectors. "This is an unprecedented movement," says Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a Thai academic at the Univ
ersity of Tokyo.
“It is so for two reasons: first, because it takes place in the bosom of a new kingdom after seven decades of a highly respected monarchy. And second, because the Thai economy has never looked so dire, "says Pavin. Thailand is a country accustomed to protests and coups - up to 13 successful since 1932 - a troubled history in which the late King Bhumibol acted as an element of unity, a role that has disappeared with his son. The tourist country, highly affected by the impact of the coronavirus, is also facing one of the worst forecasts of economic contraction in all of Asia, of 8.1 percent of its GDP, according to the Bank of Thailand.
A dangerous cocktail that leads many analysts to predict that the protests will not end easily. Its evolution is uncertain; The authorities could choose to turn a blind eye and hope they lose steam, counting on the fact that in the past two decades only street protests that have had the implicit support of the alliance between the conservatives and the Army have managed to wrest power from the government. "The worst case scenario is that force is used to dissolve them, as has happened in the past," warns Pavin. In 2010, protests against Prime Minister Abishit Vejjajiva ended in a bloody way with the intervention of the Army.
At the moment, the government is sending contradictory signals: while it has announced the creation of an Extraordinary Commission to establish a dialogue with the protesters, it has initiated legal proceedings against at least 25 participants, according to activist groups. The extension of the state of emergency until August 31 also allows, Human Rights Watch points out , "to continue the repression against their opponents, to arrest critics and to prohibit peaceful protests, and not for public health reasons."