Thai Protesters Demand Government, Monarchy Reforms

Largest rally since 2014 . . .

Some 10,000 protesters gathered in Bangkok on Sunday, demanding constitutional revisions and reform of the country’s monarchy. Criticizing the latter is especially sensitive in Thailand, where a Lèse-majesté ('royal insult') law is vigorously enforced. The protests, the largest since the 2014 coup, come amidst months of Thai government policies that have seen relative success in containing COVID-19 to the detriment of the tourism-dependent economy. A COVID-related, country-wide lockdown included strict restrictions on public gatherings, which temporarily halted protests. But protests erupted in mid-July in defiance of the ban on mass gatherings after two government ‘VIP guests’ who were not required to comply with the restrictions tested positive after visiting tourist sites. Thai students have launched almost daily protests across the country since then.

Opposition’s dissolution sowed seeds of discontent . . .

The latest wave of anti-government demonstrations began in February after Thailand’s Constitutional Court dissolved the Future Forward Party (FFP), a favourite among young voters, and banned its leader from participating in politics for 10 years. The FFP had been a relative newcomer to the Thai political scene but quickly gained traction with its pro-democracy, anti-corruption message. Many observers saw the decision to dissolve the party on what some think are questionable charges as a means to consolidate the power of the military and other entrenched elites.

A new type of crackdown on the way?

The government has responded to the protests by arresting or issuing warrants for the arrest of individuals involved with planning a flash mob in July and by dispensing plain-clothes police into the crowds. King Maha Vajiralongkorn, who lives most of the year in Europe, reportedly asked in June that the lese-majeste law, which prohibits scrutiny or debate of the royal family, not be applied in these cases. But there are plenty of other censorial laws that could just as easily be applied if the government chooses to follow its previous practice of crushing dissent. The mix of pandemic responses, a crashing economy, disarray among the country’s political leadership, and a disengaged monarchy may all play a part in how the protests unfold.