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The Nikkei View

In Thai demonstrations, both sides need restraint

Process for building national consensus cannot be rushed

Pro-democracy protesters give the three-fingered salute at an Oct. 15 rally in Bangkok demanding that the government resign and release detained movement leaders.   © Reuters

The student-led protests in Thailand show no sign of abating. Last Thursday, the government arrested major leaders of the movement one after another and banned mass gatherings by declaring a state of emergency. Yet protesters have continued pouring out into the streets.

To avoid bloodshed, both the government and the protesters need to show restraint.

The protests began when the Constitutional Court, under the influence of the military-led government headed by Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, disbanded a key opposition party in February. The Future Forward party was especially popular among young people, and dismayed supporters took to the streets.

COVID-19 temporarily took the wind out of the movement's sails, but the protests regained life in July and have since expanded.

The three major demands are Prayuth's resignation, revising the undemocratic constitution, and reforming the monarchy.

The most contentious of these is about the monarchy. The constitution stipulates that the king is subject to "revered worship," that he shall not be violated, and that he will not be exposed to any sort of accusation or action.

In Thailand, all criticism of the monarchy is strictly banned. But the students have questioned why King Maha Vajiralongkorn spends most of his time abroad.

They are demanding that he stay out of politics, that the royal court's budget be trimmed, and that the draconian lese-majeste law be abolished.

The ban on rallies was also triggered by the blockage of a royal motorcade last Wednesday, in which the government said protesters made insulting gestures. The students have defied the ban, mobilizing sporadic gatherings through social media.

On Friday, the government dispatched a high-pressure water truck to a rally in central Bangkok, trying to remove the protesters by force. The water contained a chemical substance thought to be tear gas.

Many of the participants were university students and high school students in uniforms, showing no signs of violence. The government cannot escape blame for using excessive force.

Meanwhile, the protesters need to avoid excessively aggressive words and actions. The fact is that there are many people in Thailand who cherish the royal family and many who strongly oppose what the students are calling for.

Building a national consensus will take time. Demanding an immediate answer may not be the best path forward.

While successfully containing the spread of the new coronavirus, Thailand has seen a dramatic drop in tourism revenue and is facing perhaps 8% negative growth in gross domestic product this year. To avoid further damage to the economy, both sides need to hold a dialogue and seek compromise.

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