Thailand appears to face turmoil again with protestors taking to the streets to press for democratic freedoms that were snatched after a military coup in 2014.
On Friday, many protestors surrounded a police station in the capital Bangkok while others gathered outside a court to demand the release of activists arrested on charges of instigating political disturbances.
The arrested persons, among them a human rights lawyer and a student activist, had been leading protests demanding greater freedom and ouster of the government of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-Ocha, who they claim had strengthened his hold on power after a disputed election last year.
Prayuth, a former dog trainer, songwriter and Commander in Chief of the Thai army, had led the military coup that in May 2014 displaced a civilian government. Immediately after seizing power, he cracked down severely on dissent and placed curbs on even discussions about democracy, and on all criticism of government.
Five years later, he sought to legitimise his control of the country through a general election which many people say was orchestrated to serve his ends.
Thailand has had at best a flirting engagement with democracy and the omnipresent military has stepped in often to snatch power. Equilibrium in public life, though, had been maintained because of the overarching and generally benign presence of the monarchy ~ an institution that commanded near universal respect during the long reign of King Bhumibol Adulyarej that ended with his death in 2016.
Now even that might be changing, as at least one of the men arrested this week had on 3 August called for reforms even in the monarchy, to avoid what he called the risk of clashes between opposing political camps.
It is illegal to defame or insult the monarchy under Thailand’s stringent lese majeste law, and alleged insults have often been cited as justification for military coups. Under Prayuth, the law has been used frequently including in one instance for an alleged insult to the monarch’s adopted dog and in one another for describing a dress worn by a princess as ugly.
So overwhelming has Prayuth’s dislike for dissent been that even the normally phlegmatic Thai people may have begun to find life suffocating.
In February 2015, he had claimed he had the power to close media outlets; a month later, when asked how he would deal with dissenting journalists, he reportedly joked, “We’ll probably just execute them” ~ a remark that drew sharp condemnation from the International Federation of Journalists. His dislike for protestors is also well documented and he is once reported to have said, “If they want to engage in activism or whatever, it’s up to them. If they aren’t afraid of the laws, it’s up to them, and if someone finds a gun and shoots them, or throws grenades at them, well, they have to live with that.”