October 2020International NewsAsia2020

 Thai Protesters Push for Democracy

Anita Baloukjy
Staff Writer

Tens of thousands of protesters marched in Bangkok last Saturday calling for democratic reforms. This comes after two months of demonstrations across the country. Protesters gathered at the Thammasat University campus and at Sanam Luang, a public square close to King Maha Vajiralongkorn’s official residence at the Grand Palace.

Reuters estimates that at least 30,000 people attended the demonstration. However, organizers said there were more than 50,000 people, and the police said that there were only 18,000. Nevertheless, this makes it the biggest protest since Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha seized power in a 2014 coup d’etat. Protesters carried signs denouncing the government and chanted calls for change. They could also be seen raising their hands in a three-finger salute, a symbol of resistance attributed to the Hunger Games trilogy.

At the heart of this growing movement are high school and university students demanding change. “Students have spearheaded one of the biggest mass movements in Thailand in years, posing a once-unthinkable threat to the kingdom’s political institutions — including the powerful monarchy,” The Washington Post reports. The movement began with students in towns all over the country, inspiring other sections of society.

One of the many passionate protesters is 21-year-old student leader and activist Panasaya “Rung” Sitthijirawattanakul, who took to a public stage and addressed Thailand’s King Vajiralongkorn directly. If her comments are deemed defamatory to the monarchy, she could be punished with fifteen years in prison under the country’s strict lèse-majesté laws. The movement is breaking a taboo of criticizing the monarchy in Thailand, where the powerful royal institution is regarded with deity-like reverence, and thus rewriting the social boundaries of topics of discussion. Anucha Burapachaisri, a government spokesman, said that the police would not use violence against the protesters, instead deciding to prosecute any illegal speech.

Protesters rallied to the government house to deliver a petition and to convey their demands. They were halted by unarmed police manning crowd-control barriers, although the Royal Guard Police agreed to deliver their message. The demands included revoking laws against defaming the monarchy, creating a new constitution, abolishing royal offices, removing the military junta, and demobilizing the King’s royal guards. According to CNN, reforming the monarchy is becoming the predominant order. Another demand called for a separation between the King’s private funds and the crown assets. The people wish to have a legitimate constitutional monarchy that puts the monarch underneath the constitution. They are calling for the modernization of the monarchy, not its end.

Rights groups say that the authorities are attempting to suppress the protests by arresting activists and by putting pressure on universities to stop students from demanding monarchy reform, according to the Guardian. In addition, the government has commanded Facebook to geo-block content that is critical of the royal family. This would include a page that has more than a million members.

Despite facing difficulties, the movement’s momentum shows no signs of decreasing, with protesters announcing that they will mount a major strike on October 14, the anniversary of the 1973 student uprising, Al Jazeera reports. Protesters raised a plaque at Sanam Luang on early Saturday morning which read, “At this place, the people have expressed their will: That this country belongs to the people and is not the property of the monarch as they have deceived us.”

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