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Turbulent Thailand

Thailand's peaceful student protests press for bold reforms

Demo on Queen Mother's birthday called off, but monarchy under scrutiny

Student demonstrators flashing trademark three-finger salutes called for major political reforms during a peaceful demonstration at Thammasat University on Monday.    © Reuters

BANGKOK -- Student protests have been growing in Bangkok with demonstrators openly calling for a change of government, a proper debate on the role of the monarchy and constitutional reforms. There have also recently been smaller protests in over 45 of the kingdom's 76 provinces.

Following a demonstration on Monday at Thammasat University, students had planned to stage an afternoon protest in Lumpini Park in the heart of Bangkok on Wednesday -- a public holiday marking Queen Mother Sirikit's birthday that is celebrated nationally as Mother's Day.

The event was called off the night before, organizers implied to deny suspected fifth-columnists an opportunity to cause disruption.

An even bigger protest is, however, planned for Sunday at Democracy Monument near the administrative heart of the capital.

Thousands of university students and others turned out on Monday, making it one of the largest political gatherings since the military staged a coup in 2014. Protesters called for the resignation of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha and his cabinet, and for constitutional amendments.

The constitution, Thailand's 20th since 1932, was drafted at the military's behest, and adopted after a national referendum in 2016. It gives 250 military-appointed senators a large say in choosing the prime minister, and an effective veto on constitutional reform.

Monday's protest leaders drew applause when 10 reforms to the monarchy were read out by Panusaya Sithijirawattanakul, spokesperson for the Student Union of Thailand. These included revocation of the law of lese-majeste, a reduction in public spending on the royal family, a clearer distinction between royal and public assets, and abolition of the privy council along with other "unnecessary units."

In past protests, demonstrators have avoided open criticism of the monarchy. Human rights lawyer Arnon Nampa broke the taboo when he called for a public debate on the role of the monarchy at a protest held at Democracy Monument on July 18. Arnon was arrested on Friday on a variety of charges, including alleged sedition. He and a colleague were released on bail after some 200 students gathered outside the police station where he was being detained.

The political discontent comes at a time of increasing economic hardship brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. Southeast Asia's second largest economy is expected to contract by 8.1% this year, according to the Bank of Thailand.

Students have tapped into public resentment by protesting against a justice system that many feel affords impunity to the rich and powerful. Vorayuth Yoovidhya, grandson of billionaire Red Bull co-founder Chaleo Yoovidhya, was accused of killing a police officer while intoxicated in a hit-and-run incident in 2012, but fled abroad before his arrest. The case was quietly dropped by the attorney general's office in January and his legal absolution only surfaced in July.

Warnings were issued after Monday's protests. "Whatever they want to rally, let them. But if it is against the law, then it is," said Prayuth in a doorstep interview on Tuesday.

"Differing opinions are normal in a democratic system," said Buddhipongse Punnakanta, the digital economy and society minister. "But we have to be careful not to infringe others' rights or offend the country's highest institution," he said in a reference to the monarchy. "Nobody will accept it."

Official attempts to contain the situation have included obstructing communications. The students have used YouTube, Facebook and other social media to spread their messages. Invoking the Computer Crimes Act, Buddhipongse called on IT companies to cooperate in taking down "illegal pages."

Some royalists and government supporters have also been active, with dozens rallying outside Government House on Monday.

"With at least one battalion in each province, we will have the army of people who serve to protect the monarchy," Rianthong Nanna, an ultraroyalist with almost 100,000 Facebook followers, posted on Tuesday, hinting at moves that may be afoot to thwart so far overwhelmingly peaceful protests.

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