As Thailand strategises to implement new mechanisms to extract the nation from the clutches of the economic recession as a corollary of the Covid-19 pandemic, the kingdom appears to be yet again in the middle of rising political turbulence. 21 October witnessed hundreds of youths peacefully marching to Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-Ocha’s office to deliver a draft letter of his resignation demanding it to be signed within three days. To hold his end, the Prime Minister, addressing the nation on television, has stated he is "arranging" to lift the state of emergency that he had previously declared for a month provided there is no violence. Additionally, he assures protesters that their voices are being heard. Since the parliament is supposed to hold a special session on 26th and 27th October
, he asked demonstrators to give him and lawmakers some time to discuss solutions.
The young minds of the nation are quite disgruntled with the current state of affairs. The military coup in 2014 and the premeditated unfair elections in 2019
have led to widespread anger. The assertions of shady military dealings along with the simultaneous problems of natural disasters like drought, forest fires, and air pollution across the country have magnified people’s discontent. The last nail in the coffin was the disbanding of the opposition party ‘Future Forward’ and its leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit as a Member of Parliament, quite popular among the youth forum. This saw a wave of protests erupting on the streets in February this year. While the Covid-19 restrictions from March limited the movement in its physical presence, digital space has been utilised to hold online protests using various hashtags in popular social media platforms, signing of online petitions, etc.
The physical presence of the movement under the name ‘Free Youth’ was resumed since July 18 whereby two major anti-government demonstrations took place in July and August at Democracy Monument in Bangkok, attended by thousands of young people. In addition, small-scale protests were arranged at schools and university campuses around the country. Among many some clear points of demands have been the stepping down of the prime minister which has been acted upon, the dismissal of the current government, fresh and fair elections, and the drafting of a new constitution to replace the 2017 Charter as set by the military. Another bold demand by the youth is to reform the monarchy, a territory previously unchartered.
The monarch plays a fundamental role within Thai society. In 1932, Thailand converted itself from an absolute to a constitutional monarchy. According to the constitution, the king is head of the armed forces and exercises its role as a moral authority and demands respect from its so-called ‘subjects’. After the death of King Bhumibol Adulyadej in October 2016 his son, Maha Vajiralongkorn, who is quite unpopular among the citizens was crowned last year
. Though he is known to spend much of his time in Germany, he is still accorded a revered status in Thailand. The military, then led by Prayuth Chan-Ocha, which overthrew the civilian government in May 2014, is staunchly royalist. They have even stressed that the lèse-majesté law is needed to protect the royals.
According to lèse-majesté, under Section 112 of the Thai Criminal Code
, anyone who “defames, insults or threatens the King, the Queen, the Heir-Apparent or the Regent, shall be punished with imprisonment of three to fifteen years”. However, interestingly, there is no definition of what constitutes an insult to the monarchy, and critics say this gives the authorities room to interpret the law as it suits their requirements. Lèse-majesté complaints can be filed by anyone, against anyone. Those arrested can be denied bail and some are held for long periods in pre-trial detention. Defendant’s rights are minimal in the trial. Under this law, social media is also monitored and
posting content considered seditious, as well as pressing the “Like” button on Facebook on such content, has led to prison time in the past. Regardless of the threat, open condemnation of the monarchy is mounting. The youth seem to be challenging the age-old tradition of treating the monarch as gods, are questioning his situation, and demanding that their powers be curtailed. The people are also unhappy with the elaborate spending habits of the monarchy while the
country is undergoing an economic recession where millions are unemployed or losing their jobs and businesses.
The society divided by wealth in the hands of the few entitled elites and the unending number of coups and injustice has irked the youth to act to bring about a change. Thus, the state now faces a younger, more politically acquainted generation. If political and social analysts are to be believed, it’s difficult for state apparatus to ignore emerging young voices. In some cases, youth have forced to bring about additional transparency and have held their governments accountable. In recent years, the student movements within Asian nations, for instance, Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea, Japan, as well as in India
, have succeeded in making themselves heard beyond their campuses. Few of the famous student protest movements across Asia include the 2014 Sunflower movement in Taiwan
; and the pro-democracy Umbrella movement
of 2014-15 in Hong Kong, both strategically led against China. Taking a cue from the famous Umbrella movement
, the new generation in Thailand is armed with determination, new technology, and the power of the simple three-finger gesture.
The three-finger salute has become a symbol
of political dissent. This gesture was initially borrowed by protesters from the popular Hollywood movie ‘Hunger Games’ trilogy. It has certainly become the symbol for the latest protest movement against repression, demands for freedom of expression, and a call for democratic reform. On 14 October, the Queen and her young prince while steering of a royal parade stumbled upon a prescheduled rally by the youth and witnessed in person the salute for hopes of future democracy. This caused quite an uproar within the upper circles with the dismissal of the officers in charge of
the event and the declaration of the state of emergency.
As the upper circles of wealth and power feel the heat, the movement of the students is observing its initial success. The Prime Minister on 22 October has lifted the state of emergency and has released few activists arrested the day
before. However, other student leaders arrested during earlier demonstrations and otherwise are yet to be bailed and are kept under the laws governing lèse-majesté
. In addition, the Thai authorities have blocked access to Change.org
, for hosting a request for the Thai king to be banned from Germany. The petition was signed by more than 100,000 people before being taken down.
Finally, these obstructions have not deterred the resolute determination of the youth to fight for this movement and bring about the desired change. Whether the government will recant its policies and open doors to hold dialogue is yet to be seen.
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