Thai protesters fail to bend government to demands

Despite greater freedoms of political speech, Bangkok offering little real compromise

"Long live the queen!" people cried, as Parit Chiwarak, a leader of Thailand's student-led protests, took the stage in a bouffant wig and pink gown similar to those favoured by the country's Queen Suthida.

Parit, known as Penguin, deployed the camp attire for a satirical skit at a recent demonstration. But Thailand's youth protesters were making a serious demand: the scrapping of article 112 of the criminal code, the severe lèse majesté law used to threaten or jail critics of King Maha Vajiralongkorn and his family.

Panusaya Sithijirawattanakul, known as Rung, another protest leader, read out the names of Thais charged under the law, which carries a maximum 15-year prison term.

Scenes such as these would have been unimaginable even six months ago. But Thailand's youthful protesters have sparked an unprecedented political debate with dozens of demonstrations in Bangkok and elsewhere since July that have drawn tens of thousands of people.


Despite opening a space for protest, however, analysts said the students had failed to budge Thailand’s military-backed royalist establishment on any of their three core demands: the resignation of prime minister Prayuth Chan-ocha’s government; a new constitution; or reforms to the monarchy. The protesters have also struggled to attract broader support from rural and working-class Thais, though some older allies have been won over to their cause.

Thais used to quail at the thought of criticising the monarchy even obliquely. Now, everything – including the king's power, his multibillion-dollar fortune, share of the state budget and residence in Germany – can be discussed openly.

Authoritarian abuse

Thairath, Thailand’s top-selling tabloid newspaper, recently published a front-page story about the protesters’ demands to abolish article 112, highlighting the extent to which the formerly self-censoring media now feels free to broach formerly off-limits topics.

Schoolchildren, including youngsters, have raised the protesters’ three-fingered salute at schools and outside the education ministry to protest a system they see as authoritarian and abusive.

The democracy movement has also employed subversive humour, viral memes and visual puns – donning dinosaur costumes at one point in reference to Thailand’s gerontocratic leadership – to advance their causes.

The students have also drawn international attention to their cause. The German government said it would oppose Thailand’s head of state making government decisions while based in the country.

The king and queen returned to Bangkok in early October, as the protests were escalating, and have made frequent public appearances during the royal couple's longest stay in Thailand since Vajiralongkorn assumed the throne in 2016.

Nine senators in the US, Thailand’s main military ally, introduced a resolution this month supporting the democracy movement and urging the government to “care for the rights and wellbeing of children and students”.

Kanokrat Lertchoosakul, assistant professor of political science at Chulalongkorn University, said the protesters' "first point of success" has been to broaden the scope of public debate. "The students have proved that Thai society would be ready to discuss this issue; they just needed someone to open the door."

Once-forbidden topics

Mark Cogan, associate professor of peace and conflict studies at Japan's Kansai Gaidai University, agrees that the students have made it possible to discuss once-forbidden topics. "That's one of the big successes the protests have had: dismantling the old ideas about what can be talked about and what can't," he said.

But he added: “They haven’t been successful at all in compelling the government to the negotiating table.”

Protesters and opposition parties have rejected a “reconciliation committee” proposed by the military-dominated parliament to gather pro-monarchy and pro-protest representatives, dismissing it a delaying tactic by the Prayuth government.

As protests massed outside parliament last month, MPs agreed to convene a committee to redraft the kingdom’s constitution. But they rejected a motion backed by the protesters and the opposition Move Forward party that would have put the entire charter – including an article guaranteeing the king’s privileged legal status – up for discussion.

While mostly refraining from using force, police have occasionally sprayed protesters with water laced with chemicals or prevented them from approaching public buildings by surrounding them with walls of shipping containers and barbed wire.

International attention

"The state and the authorities have all the weapons of control compared to the students," said Tamara Loos, chair of Cornell University's history department. "What the students have is perseverance, inventiveness, good knowledge of social media, and good relationships with reporters who are giving them international attention."

She added: “That’s what’s keeping this thing going.”

Thailand’s king described the country as a “land of compromise” in impromptu comments to Britain’s Channel 4 news last month. However, while it has allowed demonstrations to proceed, the Prayuth government has begun taking a harder line prosecuting protest leaders, setting the stage for further conflict in 2021.

After suspending lèse majesté prosecutions on the king’s orders in 2017, authorities are now wielding the feared law more widely. Police have summoned at least 41 people, including Parit and Panusaya, for lèse majesté investigations, according to Human Rights Watch.

“The king said this is the land of compromise, but this is not a land of compromise,” said Kanokrat of Chulalongkorn University. “With an uncompromising, strong state, what can we expect in the near future?” – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2020