Notwithstanding the invocation of emergency measures that prohibit assembly of more than five people, and the arrests of several activists, youth in Thailand appear determined to push forth their agenda for reform.
As several thousands gathered at a busy intersection in Bangkok on Thursday in defiance of prohibitory orders, and with signs evident that the protests may spread to other places in the country over the weekend, the government of former Army officer Prayuth Chanocha appeared determined not to relent. This has given rise to fears of a repeat of the violent crackdown of 2010 that saw scores of people killed. The protestors though seem unfazed and several were heard saying on Thursday they were fighting till their deaths.
The emergency decree promulgated in pre-dawn hours, besides prohibiting gatherings, also gives the government power to censor news, detain suspects and search people without warrants. While protest leaders have been arrested, it does not seem to have deterred their supporters, suggesting that anger with the establishment is widespread. Protestors are demanding that the country’s 2017 Constitution be amended, as it was designed to keep Mr Prayuth in power and ask that the Prime Minister step down immediately.
But a major concern for Thailand’s establishment is the sharp anti-monarchy tone that the protests have assumed.While Thai public life was marked by respect and even reverence for late King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who died in 2016, that is not the case now.
Despite the presence of severe lese majeste laws, the protestors have raised 10 demands to reform the monarchy. These include a revocation of laws that criminalise insulting the monarch, prohibiting the King from endorsing a coup and curbing his powers and his expenditure. King Maha Vajarilongkorn has faced widespread criticism for spending most of his time overseas – in Germany – and for his many extravagances that protestors say are not commensurate with his role as a constitutional head.
The anger with the palace bubbled to the surface this week and protestors both abused and flashed the three-fingered anti-dictatorship salute at the Queen’s convoy as it drove past.
News reports suggest that the arrested protest leaders have managed to send detailed instructions to their supporters on how to continue their movement.These include advisories to hold protests in the various provinces of the country, at different locations each day and without camping overnight at any particular spot.
The Thai establishment has several causes for worry. The protests have been spontaneous and apparently apolitical, and have attracted young people, including school children, in droves.
If they continue, the largely tourism dependent country – already hit by the coronavirus epidemic – may find its economy in tatters. The invocation of emergency powers is seen as further evidence of a dictatorship at work and may add fuel to the fire instead of dousing it.
And finally, except for diehard royalists, there is immense sympathy among citizens with the cause that the protestors represent.