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Turbulent Thailand

Thailand protesters take 'a break' with key demands unmet

Splits and mixed messages cool demos but leaders vow to return in 2021

From left, Panusaya Sithijirawattanakul, Patsaravalee "Mind" Tanakitvibulpon, and Tattep Ruangprapaikitseree. (Source photos by Reuters and Lauren Decicca)

BANGKOK -- After five months of street protests, Thailand is expected to have a relatively quiet New Year period as pro-democracy protests led by the youth go dormant with no progress on three key demands.

So far, protest calls have been ignored by Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, and his administration remains intact. The students meanwhile appear to have come up short on new issues to protest over, and there is a growing impression that the youthful reform movement is running out of steam. Rifts have also become apparent in the leadership.

Many Thais are wary of change and the older generation continues to revere the monarchy as an institution. As youthful radicalism collides with the fundamental conservatism of Thai society, student leaders remain defiant.

"We will take a break for now," Panusaya Sithijirawattanakul, one of the main protest leaders, told Nikkei Asia. "We will start fighting for democracy again next year."

"We are just taking a break, but we will never stop the fight," said Patsaravalee "Mind" Tanakitvibulpon. "Next year, we will come back with stronger force to make our dream come true."

"Next year we will fight on with a tougher movement," said Parit "Penguin" Chiwarak. "We will rip off the dictator's mask."

The prime minister's determination to stay in power drove protesters to abandon their slim hopes for quick reforms, and to regroup for a grueling campaign. The House and the Senate had started to formally consider the constitutional amendments. The process will take at least a year or two. The next general elections will happen no later than 2023.

The protests started on July 18 when COVID-19 restrictions were relaxed and offline activism became easier. Police and other observers estimated that over 20,000 protesters gathered at Democracy Monument demanding the resignation of Prayuth and his cabinet, constitutional amendments with public consultation, and reform of the monarchy.

The protests gathered momentum after students at Thammasat University read out a 10-point agenda for reform of the monarchy in August.

One of the largest protests was on Oct. 26 when thousands gathered outside the German embassy to demand Berlin investigate whether King Maha Vajiralongkorn has been conducting Thai affairs of state on German soil.

The king has been mostly resident in Bavaria in recent years. He returned to mark the fourth anniversary of his father's death on Oct. 13, and has remained in Thailand for the longest period since his accession in 2016.

With Germany in a COVID-19 lockdown, the king has used his extended time at home to mingle with royalists and members of the conservative establishment, sometimes with unusual public intimacy. Members of the royal family have accompanied him on a public relations campaign not previously seen.

Super Poll contacted 1,200 respondents in the second week of December, and reported that 98.7% wanted constitutional monarchy to remain. Super Poll is run by Assistant Professor Noppadon Kannika who is regarded as conservative despite his claims to being neutral.

There has been no debate in Germany's Bundestag, the federal parliament, in response to the student demands. Parliamentary checks have, however, confirmed that the king has been visiting on a private visa -- which does not diminish his status as a head of state in German eyes. But there has been speculation that Germany might in future require that a regent be appointed in Thailand during the king's absences for future visas to be issued.

The authorities have on occasions taken a firm stance, deploying water cannons to counter the most determined rally outside parliament on Nov. 17 when royalists actually clashed with demonstrators.

Cargo containers, concrete barriers and razor wire have also been used to block off access to sensitive areas, particularly royal properties.

In July, Prayuth announced that the king had made it clear that he did not want the controversial law of lese-majeste used against demonstrators. As the protests continued, however, anti-monarchy sentiment grew stronger, and sites with strong royal connections -- such as the Crown Property Bureau and the headquarters of Siam Commercial Bank -- were targeted as rally venues.

On Nov. 19, Prayuth reversed the official position on lese-majeste, but did not reveal if he was acting on instructions. At least 34 protesters have so far been charged under the law, which is meant to protect senior members of the royal family from hurt and offense. Those facing charges include Panasuya, Penguin and Mind. Unusually, actual arrests have not yet been reported.

Yuthaporn Issarachai, a political scientist at Sukhothai Thammatirat University, notes that many of the student leaders are facing multiple charges that require them to present themselves in different places. "That will prevent them from joining rallies and reduce their force," he said.

On Dec 7, Free Youth, one of main protest groups, launched its Restart Thailand campaign highlighting the importance of laborers and farmers. The adoption of a controversial hammer and sickle banner with obvious communist connotations attracted considerable criticism.

Jaran Ditapichai, 72, a veteran of the Communist Party of Thailand, which was officially wound up in the mid-1980s, posted on Instagram that the Communist Party of France had endorsed the Thai protests in early November. Jaran, a former member of the Human Rights Commission of Thailand, has political asylum in France.

Wherever it drew its inspiration, Restart Thailand apparently caused confusion among protesters who want genuine reform but have no interest in Cold War ideologies. Some key leaders immediately distanced themselves from the move.

"Let me make it clear that I am not a member of Free Youth, and I have nothing to do with the Restart Thailand movement," Penguin told Nikkei. "I still insist on our three key demands."

"Everybody has a right to express their political idea," said Panasuya. "However, I am not a member of Free Youth, and I don't want to create confusion -- I am still fighting for the three key demands."

Mind, the student leader who led more than 10,000 protesters to the German embassy, was also reluctant to discuss Free Youth's leftist branding. "If they want to float communist ideas, I think we should talk and make it clear before raising the issue," she told Nikkei. "I am not clear what Free Youth is trying to say."

Paisal Puechmongkol, a former assistant to Deputy Prime Minister Pravit Wongsuwan, said Free Youth's leftist inclinations were clear, and this would alienate many protesters. "I think parents of young students who don't want communism will discourage their children from joining the protests," Paisal posted on Facebook.

 "It is one of several movements that our group want to propose to all protesters as one of a number of strategies to move Thailand forward," Tattep Ruangprapaikitseree, head of Free Youth told Nikkei.

Business leaders have insisted on the need to move on from ideological debates to reviving the economy. "I think the spending mood is getting back to normal, and we are seeing increased business activity that supports the economy," said Supant Mongkolsuthree, chairman of the Federation of Thai Industries. "I think the tolerance for political chaos is subsiding as most people see economic issues as the priority."

The mixed-up political agendas and protest goals will make it harder to regenerate momentum when attempts are made to restart rallies next year. Yuthaporn said the recent political fractures are likely to break protesters down into smaller groups and reduce the overall pressure they can exert on the government.

"They have different political ideas and are fighting in different directions," said Yuthaporn. "We may not see any big protests next year."

"They might have to hold back and rethink their strategy as all the protests were unsuccessful, and they still have not got what they demanded," Jade Donavanik, a political scientist with the College of Asian Scholars said.

Thailand is experiencing a resurgence of the COVID-19 outbreak, with the latest flare-up coming from a province next to southwestern Bangkok. The virus could slow protesters' momentum after the year-end break, in the same way the demonstrations against the disbandment of the Future Forward Party in February were interrupted by the first phase of the pandemic.

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