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Turbulent Thailand

Thai protests grow on streets and online: Five things to know

Secondary school students show solidarity while Facebook group draws 1m members

Pro-democracy students raise three fingers, a gesture of resistance, during a protest rally in front of the Education Ministry in Bangkok on Aug. 19.   © AP

BANGKOK -- Youth-led pro-democracy protests have swept Thailand. Big or small, they occur almost every day somewhere in the kingdom, calling for broad reforms. At least 55 out of 76 provinces have had rallies since mid-July.

About 20,000 people gathered on Sunday at Democracy Monument near the administrative heart of Bangkok, making it the biggest rally since a coup in 2014. Some protesters were not afraid to raise a debate on Thailand's long-standing taboo -- the role of the monarchy in politics and society.

What are the protesters' demands?

At Sunday's rally, organizer Free People presented three demands: the dissolution of both chambers of parliament, the rewriting of contentious parts of the constitution, and an end to official harassment that inhibits people from exercising their fundamental rights.

They said no coup should be staged and no national unity government should be formed in the future.

The tone of these requests was less radical than when 10 proposed reforms to the monarchy were read out by a spokesperson for another protester group, Student Union of Thailand, on Aug. 10 at Thammasat University. But the underlying message is the same: Allow Thailand to segue to a democratic form of government with the monarchy under the constitution.

The lighter tone made it easier for people to join the rally, and attendance swelled to about 20,000 people.

What drove people to the streets?

Political and judicial developments since the March 2019 general election have young people questioning if their say has been marginalized. Over 7.3 million voters under 25 years old took part in that election; it was their first opportunity to exercise voting rights.

Those who initiated the recent pro-democracy movements most likely cast ballots for Future Forward, a party founded in 2018 by 41-year-old billionaire Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit. The party's pledge to update the constitution, cut the military budget and bring the military under civilian control resonated with discontented youth. Future Forward gained 6.3 million votes, or 17.8% of the ballots, and won 81 out of 500 lower house seats.

But the charismatic Thanathorn lost his parliamentary status in November 2019 after the Constitutional Court ruled he had violated laws prohibiting election candidates from owning shares in media companies. In February, the same court ordered the disbandment of Future Forward for illegally accepting funds from Thanathorn. While the authorities insist they were enforcing the law, young Thais saw something else, the muzzling of the progressive party and its leader.

Faith in the country's justice system further deteriorated in July, when the public became aware that a hit-and-run case against Vorayuth Yoovidhya, the grandson of billionaire Red Bull co-founder Chaleo Yoovidhya, had been quietly dropped by the attorney general's office back in January.

An economy pushed to the brink by the pandemic also has many Thais up in arms. It shrank by 12.2% during the three months ending June, compared with the same period the previous year.

How are these different from past rallies?

A willingness to challenge long-held taboos is the biggest difference between the recent rallies and past ones, and it has been fostered by the anonymous nature of the internet.

Thailand's history is filled with protests and coups. For about a decade up until the 2014 coup, the main protesters were so-called Red Shirts and Yellow Shirts. The Red Shirts were supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, now a fugitive, and included many rural poor. The Yellow Shirts were concentrated in Bangkok and were seen as representing urban elites and the old status quo. Although their clashes often led to bloodshed, taboo subjects like the monarchy remained off-limits.

Students leading the current rallies are mostly from middle-class families. As children of the internet age with wider access to information, young adults wonder why their country has had 20 constitutions and 13 successful coups since 1932. Their realization has led to doubts about the nature of the country's politics.

Social media has also played an important role. Accounts of injustice, violence and abuse of power, which were often kept under wraps in the past, are in plain view online.

Is the movement gaining momentum?

To be sure, the 20,000 who showed up for Sunday's rally were far fewer than the crowds of 100,000 that the Red Shirts and Yellow Shirts used to attract. But the movement should not be underestimated as the youth groups are still gaining support, online and off.

Secondary school students have begun to wear white ribbons and give three-fingered salutes during morning assembly. These are expressions of silent rebuke to the government.

Meanwhile, hundreds of teachers and scholars have stood with the movement, praising it for invoking a bold debate, and saying the students and protesters have only exercised their freedom of speech and have not violated laws.

Royalist Marketplace, a private Facebook group that openly discusses the role of Thailand's monarchy, reached 1 million subscribers on Wednesday, an increase of more than 40% from a month ago.

What happens next?

Free People has said it will give the current administration about a month to meet its requests. Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha on Monday shrugged off the demands. On Wednesday, he reiterated that some are impossible to implement.

Police officers at the criminal courthouse in Bangkok. Thai police arrested nine pro-democracy activists in a crackdown on growing protests.    © AP

The group said it will escalate the rallies if its demands are not met. Free People has not yet announced a date for its next rally but has revealed a plan to hold an overnight sit-in. Meanwhile, a group of Thammasat University students is set to organize a large protest for Sept. 19 at the university's Tha Phra Chan campus, located near the Grand Palace in Bangkok.

The government is expected to allow protests as long as they remain peaceful. According to Traisuree Thaisaranakul, the government's deputy spokesperson, Prayuth has told authorities to be patient and show restraint if goaded by protesters, and that forceful control measures are to be avoided. But he has also warned protesters not to violate the rights of others.

Thailand is currently under a state of emergency due to the pandemic, with Prayuth wielding a decree that gives him overwhelming power to limit people's rights while minimizing the cabinet's role. The prime minister, who led the 2014 coup, has not limited protesters' assembly rights in the name of the emergency decree.

But the authorities have charged those who have spoken at the protests with sedition. On Wednesday and Thursday, nine activists, including a member of hip-hop group Rap Against Dictatorship and human rights lawyer Arnon Nampa, were arrested. They were released on bail by Thursday night.

Putchapong Nodthaisong, spokesman for the Ministry of Digital Economy and Society, said the ministry will file a complaint against Pavin Chachavalpongpun, an associate professor at Kyoto University's Center for Southeast Asian Studies, for creating the Royalist Marketplace group. "We have filed a request to Facebook to delete the entire group, but the platform hasn't been cooperative," Putchapong said.

Prayuth on Wednesday chaired a special meeting of security agencies. According to a local report, the agencies were told to maintain order if the protests develop into unrest. In the past, the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej often acted as a mediator during times of political strife. With the monarchy now being a subject of debate, it is uncertain how the current discord might shake out.

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