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Interview

Thailand protests are 'justified': scholars weigh in on unrest

Sulak 'very proud' of activists; Suehiro notes emphasis on social justice

Many young people can be seen in the current protests in Thailand.

BANGKOK -- The protests rocking Thailand have resulted in a number of demands against the powers that be, including amendments to the constitution, reforms to the monarchy and the resignation of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, who first came to power in a military coup.

Sulak Sivaraksa, Thailand's foremost Buddhist scholar, is no stranger to activism himself, having several times run afoul of Thailand's draconian lese-majeste law forbidding perceived damage or insult to the monarchy.

When Nikkei interviewed Sulak in his home on Oct. 20, he said the time has come to discuss reforms to the monarchy, and the scholar offered warm praise and advice to the youth-led protests.

Akira Suehiro, professor at Tokyo's Gakushuin University, elaborated on how anti-government protests have evolved in Thailand over the years, culminating in the current movement fueled by disillusionment with the status quo.

Edited excerpts from their interviews follow.

Thai social activist Sulak Sivaraksa, left, and Akira Suehiro, professor at Japan's Gakushuin University, discussed the Thailand protests with Nikkei.

Sulak Sivaraksa, Thailand's foremost Buddhist scholar and social critic:

Q: How do you see the demands from the protesters?

A: In my opinion, the demands are justified because Prayuth, although he claimed that he came from a democratic system, in reality is still in a dictatorship. The Future Forward Party has won 80 [legislative seats], but Prayuth tried everything to destroy that party, and he refused things such as an amendment to the constitution.

Prayuth as prime minister must take all responsibility, but he often refers to [King Maha Vajiralongkorn]. I think that was really unwise for the prime minister.

In a constitutional monarchy, the king can do no wrong. Everything the king does, the prime minister must take responsibility.

That's why people now become angry even with the monarchy, because I think Prayuth brought the monarchy down.

Q: How does this student uprising compare with those from the past?

A: This is the first with not only college or university students but also schoolchildren. They are very articulate, and what they say also makes sense. They did not use wild accusations. I am very proud of them.

In the [student-led uprising in the 1970s], no schoolchildren were involved.

Now students have come out of the mainstream, so I am proud of those young people [who came out], not only in Bangkok but also in the provinces, too.

Q: What is your opinion on monarchy reform?

A: Now is the time that we must confront the monarchy directly and [determine] how we can make the monarchy survive appropriately. In the old days, I was the only one who was speaking, but now [the sentiment] is widespread. People feel that if the monarchy is not accountable and if there is no criticism, the monarchy may not even survive, unless the monarchy benefits the people.

Q: How do you see Thailand's lese-majeste law?

A: [The late King Bhumibol Adulyadej] said that anybody who brought lese-majeste cases to the court meant those were to harm him personally and undermine the monarchy. The late king said that.

But no government ever implements the king's wish, despite the fact they say they're all loyal to the throne.

Q: Is the king listening to the protesters?

A: I don't know how much [the king] is aware of the demands so far. He remains quiet ... I have heard from reliable sources that the king is very concerned about young people, and I even heard that he also told Prayuth to handle the situation wisely and carefully, but Prayuth did not implement [the response] as the king wished.

Q: What is your advice to protesters?

A: I tell them that I admire what they are doing, but I also caution them not to be impatient and not to use bad language -- in particular with the monarchy.

Whatever they express, they should do so with respect and use proper language, because once they make one mistake regarding the monarchy, the public will turn against them.

You have certain extreme elements harming them already. But so far, the public is with them.

Akira Suehiro, professor at Gakushuin University in Tokyo:

To understand the political unrest in Thailand, one needs to compare it to large-scale anti-government demonstrations in the past.

The pro-democracy movement in the 1970s took place against the backdrop of the Cold War, and it aimed to realize social justice within the context of a class struggle.

The demonstrations in the early 1990s, after the Cold War ended, sought to clean up government, which had been frequently criticized as corrupt.

The period starting from 2006 had reciprocal demonstrations by the camps loyal to former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and those staged by his detractors. The back-and-forth revolved around whether you liked Thaksin, the democratically elected leader who mixed money with politics.

Now the goal is social justice. While tensions between the U.S. and China loom in the background, they are not as big of a factor as the Cold War was. The slowdown in economic growth is a more pressing concern.

In South Korea, younger people who have given up on finding a job, getting married or buying a house for economic reasons are referred to as the "N-po Generation." A similar thing is happening in Thailand. A generation that has lost hope, that feels trapped economically and socially, is expressing their dissatisfaction in the form of student protests.

Developments in communication methods have bolstered this trend. Social media and smartphones have given people access to a flood of information that the media do not report. While protests in the past were concentrated around Bangkok, they are now being held simultaneously across the country.

The demands for royal reform are revolutionary. But actually updating the constitution is almost like a regime change, and is easier said than done. It will take a long time to change the system.

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