2020 Thai Protests

2020 Thai Protests

A Never-Ending Fight for Democracy

12/2020  | Reading time: 5 minutes

On 19 September, tens of thousands gathered at Thammasat University in Bangkok, and, at the biggest demonstration since the latest power transition in 2014, they expressed their demands for replacing the current prime minister and reforming the monarchy. Tensions in Thailand are the result of the country’s historical and political heritage, on the one hand, and the activities of the current leadership, on the other, and their outcome will certainly be crucial for the future of the Southeast Asian country. 

The history of the Kingdom of Thailand, formerly known as Siam, has been defined by coup d’états and rebellions for centuries. The founder and the first monarch of the Southeast Asian country’s currently reigning Chakri dynasty, with the regnal name Rama I, also gained the throne after a rebellion in 1782 against Taksin the Great, who had previously united the country. Rama I, then, established Bangkok as the new capital. The following centuries have proved the great diplomatic skills of Thai kings—who have since used the regnal name Rama with the appropriate number without exception—as Thailand was the only country in Southeast Asia never to became an official colony of Western great powers. In 1932, the former absolute monarchy was transformed into a constitutional monarchy, following the nearly bloodless Siamese revolution. However, democratic aspirations, in the long term, led to political instability and the permanent rivalry of civilian politicians and military leaders, and the struggle for having an influence on the government continued into the 2000s. The last twenty years of Thai politics have been especially tumultuous: civilian governments, demonstrations, coups, and military juntas have taken turns, causing several serious political crises in the country.

This year’s first wave of protests began in early 2020 and was initially directed only against the current prime minister, Prayut Chan-o-cha, and his government. Prayut Chan-o-cha is a 66-year-old Thai politician, retired general officer, and the former commander-in-chief of the Royal Thai Army. He commanded the latest military coup in the history of the Thai constitutional monarchy in his latter position in 2014, removing the former prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra from her position. After the coup, the military junta, called the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) and led by Prayut, seized the power and assumed control of the country until 2019.

One of the most unpopular measures of the military regime was the approval of the new Thai constitution in 2017, which placed the army in a disproportionately favourable position vis-à-vis the political parties in the short and long term when it comes to governing the country. Subsequently, parliamentary elections were held in March 2019, and the People’s State Power Party (Phalang Pracharath Party), supported by the NCPO, made a questionable victory against the democratic and royalist parties. Therefore, Prayut Chan-o-cha could remain the PM of Thailand. Evidently, the direct causes of the current protests in the Southeast Asian country are the five-year reign of the NCPO and the activities of the current ruling party, as inequalities between different social groups, especially urban and rural populations, have increased during this period, while human and political rights have also been eroded. Nevertheless, the situation is more complex, and the collective responsibility of the governments and monarchs before the Prayut administration is also indisputable, especially if we consider that the protesters have added the comprehensive reform of the monarchy to their demands for the abolition of the authoritarian regime.

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Besides the Democracy Monument, which is an iconic venue of the 2020 movements, the use of the “three-fingered” salute borrowed by Thai protesters from the Hollywood movie The Hunger Games also has a symbolic meaning: it has been used in Thailand as a sign of the stance against repressive regimes since the 2014 military coup.
Source: NP27/Shutterstock

The series of events, which has since gradually come to the forefront of international attention, began in February 2020, following a controversial decision by the Thai constitutional court against a democratic opposition party. The leader of the Future Forward Party lent six million dollars’ worth of Thai baht to his party, which the constitutional court classified as an illegal donation. The independence of state organs is highly questionable in Thailand, so the dissolution of the extremely popular party critical of the government caused exceptionally great outrage and led to the eruption of the first wave of anti-government protests, which was limited to universities and high schools that time and was only attended by students. However, the nationwide protests came to an end very soon, as the Thai authorities declared a state of emergency at the end of March to stop the rapid spread of the global coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, closing all educational institutions.

The protests gained new impetus in the summer, when a group called Free Youth organised a demonstration at the Democracy Monument in Bangkok. The venue was of particular importance, as it has become the most iconic scene of Thai democratisation efforts flaring up from time to time in the last ninety years. The approximately 2,500 protesters came up with three demands: the dissolution of parliament, an amendment to the constitution, and an end to the harassment of critical voices. Next, a wave of protests swept across the Southeast Asian country in a matter of seconds, largely organised on social media, and, by the end of July, one-third of Thai provinces were already affected. To emphasise the increasing repression further, a Harry Potter–themed protest was staged in early August, where human rights activist and lawyer Anon Nampa, one of the leading figures in the Thai protests, publicly criticised the monarchy and called for its reform, an act that had been unprecedented before. After the protesters had made ten further demands at Thammasat University in Bangkok, mainly for limiting the king’s powers and annulling the lèse-majesté law, which prohibits any criticism of the monarchy, tens of thousands joined the movement. The authorities initially took additional emergency measures, such as restricting the right to assembly, but this proved insufficient to solve the deteriorating situation. The initially peaceful mass demonstrations, which are now part of the everyday life of the country, have become violent since October: pro-democracy activists have clashed several times with royalists, pro-Prayut counter-protesters, and the police.

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The police have recently used tear gas and water cannon to disperse the masses, and the protesters started defending themselves with inflatable rubber ducks originally intended as a joke but now becoming a symbol of the protests.
Source: songpon ruengsamut/Shutterstock

In mid-December, the protesters announced that they would suspend their activities for a short time at the end of the year so that they could resume their struggle for a democratic Thailand with more intensity in 2021. Both Prayut Chan-o-cha and the current king, the 68-year-old Rama X (Maha Vajiralongkorn), face a substantial challenge as the unprecedented developments in the Southeast Asian country seem to increase the republican sentiment within society. The revolutionary mood is not expected to subside next year either, so the government must be prepared to engage in a compromise-oriented political dialogue with the protesters in the coming months. The normalisation of the chaotic situation is indispensable for all, especially because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, which is currently kept under efficient control in Thailand despite the protests attracting significant masses.

The opening pic is by kan Sangtong/Shutterstock 

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