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Turbulent Thailand

Thailand protests collapse as leaders languish in jail

Despite lull, new unrest possible as government nixes constitution amendment

A Thai demonstrator shows his displeasure with the number "112" on March 9, in reference to the draconian lese-majeste article of the country's criminal code.   © Reuters

BANGKOK -- Not long ago, Thailand's pro-democracy movement looked to be gaining momentum for change in a country that critics said was still ruled by a military elite who traded in their uniforms for civilian clothes.

Rallies had grown into the tens of thousands, demanding retired general-turned-Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha step down and sparking a debate over reforms to the monarchy.

But with many protest leaders now in prison, the monthslong movement has stalled and the demands that once seemed attainable are likely to be shelved -- at least for now.

"Protest turnouts kept on falling," Yuthaporn Issarachai, a political scientist at Bangkok's Sukhothai Thammathirat Open University told Nikkei Asia. "The decline has made it difficult for the youth-led demonstrators to maintain their momentum toward fighting for what they demand."

The pro-democracy movement gained steam last summer when the pandemic heightened frustration among many Thais over an ailing economy, as well as a widening income gap and human rights disparities between the rich and poor.

A protest on July 18 hosted by the pro-democracy group Free Youth attracted thousands of demonstrators calling for the dissolution of the lower house of parliament, the resignation of Prayuth, and an end to police harassment.

Demands soon escalated when Thai lawyer and human rights activist Anon Nampa raised a debate over the country's long-revered monarchy, igniting calls for reforms for the first time in Thailand's modern history at a protest in early August. Thai kings have been given semi-divine status for several hundred years by the people.

However, data shows that the movement likely peaked in October, when Patsaravalee "Mind" Tanakitvibulpon, another young protest leader, led tens of thousands of protesters on a march to the German Embassy in Bangkok, where they demanded an investigation into King Maha Vajiralongkorn's activities in Germany, and whether they violated German law.

Demonstrators also wanted to know if the king was liable for German inheritance tax following the death of his revered father, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, in October 2016, thrusting the king under the international spotlight and placing pressure on the German government to investigate the matter.

According to Google Trends data, web searches on "protest" in Thai and "Thailand protest" in English both spiked in October, but retreated by December. As of mid-March, both Thai and English searches were down to less than 10% of the peak, showing the ebb of domestic and international attention.

The trend matches the decline of protest turnouts. Recent demonstrations have only garnered crowds of a few hundred compared with thousands a few months ago.

The pro-democracy movement has become watered down for three main reasons: a lack of unity among protest groups and their demands; the COVID-19 resurgence; and the government's use of the draconian lese-majeste law to incite fear.

Disparate demands not only failed to unify what began as diverse groups of Thais frustrated at a lack of economic opportunities, but also led to friction between leaders that weakened the rallies.

In an interview with Nikkei Asia, Jade Donavanik, political scientist at the College of Asian Scholars in Khon Kaen in Thailand's northeast, said: "They keep changing their demands, starting from stop harassing people, then went to house dissolution, the prime minister must resign, the charter must be amended and finally the monarchy must be reformed. That's too many, and it's hard to unite a large group of people to fight for because it was too scattered,"

Donavanik said the many demands splintered the protesters into small groups, as well as their leaders, who failed to crystallize a common goal to fight for.

Divisions among the pro-democracy movement deepened in December, when protest leader Tattep Ruangprapaikitseree proposed having banners emblazoned with images of a hammer and sickle, raising confusion among Thais about whether they were fighting for democracy or communism.

"I think that is the key turning point because it was confusing and made other leaders turn away from Free Youth, led by Tattep," said Boonyakiat Karavekphan, a political science lecturer at Ramkhamhaeng University in Bangkok. "We can see the friction among protesters that led to the weaker momentum today."

Boonyakiat said the loss in momentum could be attributed to the deep-rooted conservatism in Thai society, which still values the monarchy as a pillar of the constitution. When protesters turned on the king, many Thais turned away from the protests.

"The ways young protesters acted against the king were seen as impolite, raising concerns that the protest was not aimed at reform, but could aim to abolish the monarchy," Boonyakiat said.

There were also apolitical forces that stemmed the tide of the protests. Thailand's coronavirus resurgence in mid-December forced the protest groups -- and citizens in general -- to go into seclusion. The government used this period to charge student leaders with crimes, including the lese-majeste charge, which is among the most draconian of its kind in the world.

Defendants of lese majeste, Article 112 of the criminal code, face up to 15 years in jail per offense, with consecutive terms possible. Anyone can make a complaint of lese majeste to the police. Pretrial detentions can last months or even longer.

In January, a retired civil servant was sentenced to a record jail term of 43 years and six months for the crime. She had shared an audio clip deemed critical of the monarchy six years earlier, and her pretrial detention lasted nearly four years.

After the detention of student activist Parit "Penguin" Chiwarak, human rights lawyer Arnon Nampa and two other top protesters last month, the Criminal Court in Bangkok denied bail last week to three more leading protest figures: Panusaya "Ruang" Sithijirawattanakul, Panupong "Mike Rayong" Jadnok and Jatupat "Pai Dao Din" Boonpattararaksa.

Much of the pro-democracy movement's top leadership is now held in pretrial detention.

Parit "Penguin" Chiwarak shows a three-finger salute upon arrival at a Bangkok court on March 15. The arrest of pro-democracy leaders is one reason protests in Thailand have largely died out.   © Reuters
Panusaya "Rung" Sithijirawattanakul reacts as she arrives at court on March 15 to face lese majeste charges stemming from protests in Thailand.   © Reuters

The arrests spread fear among the protesters. "Frankly, I am scared," said a 29-year-old employee nicknamed Jeen at a Thai bank. She attended three large rallies last year but has not gone to any this year. "With fewer people at rallies, it's probably easier for the authorities to spot who went. I don't want to spend my best days in jail," she said.

However, analysts say the loss of momentum does not mean that the pro-democracy movement has completely ended. Anti-military and anti-monarchy idealism have emerged among thousands of protesters, particularly among Thai netizens across the world.

That has put pressure back on the Prayuth administration not to be seen as trying to consolidate power, particularly on the constitutional amendment process, that would ignite a common feeling of anger to encourage thousands to take to the streets again.

Thailand's charter amendment draft returned for its third reading on Wednesday and was rejected the same day by the ruling Palang Pracharat Party and senators.

The current constitution enacted in 2017 was drafted and passed a referendum when a junta led by Prayuth was in power. The constitution had been criticized by jurists and political analysts for giving too much say to 250 senators, who were hand-picked by the junta, while diminishing voices of the general public through elected House members.

On March 11, the Constitutional Court judged that the charter amendment requires two national referendums. The first vote should be held before politicians begin the amendment process to ask Thai citizens whether any changes should be made, while the other should ask if people accept the wording of the changes.

There was no call for a referendum when the current amendment process was initiated.

Rewriting charters was an election pledge for many political parties, including some that are currently in the ruling party.

The opposition wants the process to continue, as there is no guarantee that the amendment will be reintroduced at a later date, considering the political power balance in the House. The motion to rewrite the constitution was originally filed by the opposition in August 2020. Wednesday's vote dealt a final blow to seven months of hard work.

As the protest momentum has already collapsed, the ruling parties may no longer feel compelled to proceed with a new process.

"The charter rewriting is the strongest point among those different demands, and not only protesters, but also many [ordinary] Thais are keeping an eye on the government's sincerity in amending the law. If there is any disruption in the process, that could draw another big protest," said Jade of the College of Asian Scholars.

While many young Thais may have left the rallies, they can still have their voices heard in the voting booth, although the 2019 general elections that secured Prayuth's grip on the country were deemed by the watchdog Asian Network for Free Elections as "anything other than partly free, and not fair."

"I still believe in what we insisted. Maybe I will wait until the next general elections to officially express my view," Jeen said.

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