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Turbulent Thailand

Thai youth step up protests amid political tensions and economic woes

Speeches target pro-military government, impunity and role of the monarchy

 Protest leader Patsaravalee Tanakitvibulpon at a flash demonstration in Bangkok after two unusually outspoken activists were arrested on Aug. 8. They were released on bail over the weekend, but bigger protests are expected this week.     © Reuters

BANGKOK -- Thailand's politics are churning again with a new generation openly venting on a raft of grievances ranging from constant military meddling in politics and a backward-looking constitution to economic mismanagement and flagrant legal impunity for the rich and powerful.

Further evidence of political discontent surfaced with a Harry Potter-themed protest under the Free Youth banner at Bangkok's Democracy Monument on July 18. It attracted about a thousand students, and was among the largest political gatherings since the military staged a coup in 2014.

The young demonstrators announced plans for two bigger protests later in the capital with up to 10,000 expected to join. The first will be at Thammasat University on Monday.

The Democracy Monument speakers included Arnon Nampa, a human rights lawyer, and political activist Panupong Jadnok, both of whom were arrested on Friday on a variety of charges, including alleged sedition. Over 200 students gathered outside the police station where the two dissidents were being detained, and they were subsequently released on bail.

At the July 18 protest, Arnon had with rare boldness called for a public debate on the role of the monarchy, but was careful to say he was not advocating its overthrow. Police are believed to have another 31 activists marked down for possible arrest.

Hundreds of other students have staged sporadic anti-government rallies in 45 of the country's 76 provinces. The protesters called for parliament to be dissolved and the constitution to be amended, particularly Article 256 that gives 250 military-appointed senators a large say in choosing the prime minister and an effective veto on constitutional change.

"We should not underestimate the protesters," Yutthaporn Issarachai, a political scientist at Sukhothai Thammathirat University, told the Nikkei Asian Review. "They have pointed out that the charter is not very democratic and should be amended."

Anti-government sentiments have spread quickly on social media, particularly among university and high school students. When they gather for peaceful flash protests, the youngsters light up mobile phones for visual impact. Many observers expect the protests to gather momentum, and for people from other walks of life to join.

Boonyakiat Karavekphan, a political science lecturer at the Ramkamhaeng University, told Nikkei that Thailand's dismal economic outlook is fueling the political unrest, particularly among the young. "The government can do nothing to support the economy at this time," he said. "If young people feel they can't count on the government or the judicial system, then the protests will get bigger and more middle-class people will join."

The common ground of discontent is expanding. A widespread grievance has been the perceived failings of the justice system in the case of Vorayuth Yoovidhya, a grandson in the billionaire Krating Daeng (Red Bull) family. Vorayuth -- who is widely known as Boss -- was accused of killing a police officer in 2012 while driving his Ferrari intoxicated through Bangkok at 177 kph early one morning.

Vorayuth ignored numerous police summonses and fled the country in a private aircraft two days ahead of his belated arrest. After nearly eight years, with some of the lesser charges against him already expired, the attorney general's office decided on Jan. 20 to quietly drop all charges, opening the way for Vorayuth to reenter the country without fear of arrest. When news reports about his legal absolution finally surfaced on July 23, there was widespread outrage over the brazen impunity the rich and powerful evidently continue to enjoy in Thailand.

The controversy has been seized upon by the Free Youth network. Lawyers, parliamentarians and activist organizations have also called for an open investigation. Embattled Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha finally ordered one on July 29, and has revealed his personal unhappiness over the way in which the case has been handled.

Testing the public's patience, two new witnesses had testified that Vorayuth's car was traveling much less fast than previously calculated, that the dead policeman had suddenly pulled out into its path, and that the cocaine detected in Vorayuth's blood tests was residue from dental treatment.

A key witness to the alleged slower speed of the vehicle meanwhile died in a motorcycle accident in Chiangmai on July 30.

"Prison is for the poor, but the rich go free," said Somporn Sudthai, a 27-year-old taxi driver told Nikkei, saying he was infuriated by the case.

"Justice is a fundamental right that everyone should have, but this case widens inequality in the country," Rosana Tositrakul, a former senator and a prominent political critic, told Nikkei. "The rich and poor get different standards of justice."

A survey conducted by Super Poll on July 28, when the Red Bull row was escalating again, found that 91% of respondents felt the Thai judicial system was undependable, and 86% said they have lost faith in it. Over 90% of teenagers polled said they would disobey the government because of its failure to protect people.

"We were intimidated although we only staged peaceful protests," said Tattep Ruangprapaikitseree, a 23-year-old political science student and protest leader from Chulalongkorn University. "But for this hit-and-run case, there was no justice -- this is not fair."

Tattep said Free Youth has already morphed into the Free People movement, with many others coming on board to protest. Another major protest is scheduled for the afternoon of Aug. 16 at Democracy Monument, and Tattep told Nikkei he expects over 10,000 to show up.

Prayuth has vaguely indicated some willingness to revisit some contentious parts of the constitution, Thailand's 20th since 1932, when the absolute monarchy was overturned. Although he has been ruling by emergency decree during the COVID-19 pandemic, the prime minister has recently been preoccupied with reshuffling his weak coalition cabinet and shoring up its fractious dominant party, Palang Pracharat.

Somkid Jatusripitak, the deputy prime minister who oversaw economic strategy and a former finance minister, was among four key people who stepped down last month.

On Wednesday, King Maha Vajiralongkorn signed the royal assent for the new cabinet. Supattanapong Punmeechaow, the former head of PTT Global Chemical, a state enterprise, will become a deputy prime minister and energy minister. Predee Daochai, a former co-president of Kasikornbank, is the new finance minister.

There is considerable skepticism about the cabinet reshuffle's likely impact on an economy already severely battered by the COVID-19 pandemic, with no clear path out of the crisis yet apparent.

"It's not a sincere reshuffle to find the right people to tackle our economic problems," said Panusaya Sithijirawattanakul, a 21-year-old student at Thammasat University. She argued that the well-being of the dominant coalition party is being put ahead of the national interest. Panusuya has seen friends forced to drop out of classes because of economic hardship, while her own family's car repair business has suffered a 70% drop in earnings.

Although Thailand has earned considerable international kudos for its handling of the pandemic, it must now foot the bill for the economic damage. The University of the Thai Chamber of Commerce has forecast that Thailand's gross domestic product this year will fall by 9.4%, but many regard that as conservative given the decimation of exports, the collapse of tourism, and severely weakened consumer confidence.

In April, the Ministry of Labor reported that unemployment was already up by 45%. The Office of the National Economic and Social Development predicted in June that unemployment would climb to up to 4% of the workforce, but that figure is expected to be revised substantially upwards. Unemployment usually runs at about 1% -- about 400,000 workers -- but as many as 8.4 million people could be losing their jobs, with those in small and medium size businesses affected particularly badly.

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