Thai students risk jail to curb monarchy’s power

Thousands of demonstrators gathered again on Monday, which have gained momentum after the arrests of top leaders who have since been released

BANGKOK • Student protesters in Thailand are stepping up pressure on the military-backed government with calls for greater democracy and less power for the monarchy, a potentially explosive demand just as leaders struggle to handle the country’s worst-ever economic crisis.

Thousands of demonstrators gathered again on Monday as part of near-daily gatherings across Thailand, which have gained momentum after the arrests of top leaders who have since been released on bail. They reiterated a rare public call last week by one of those arrested, Arnon Nampa, for rolling back measures that increased the power of King Maha Vajiralongkorn since he took the throne in 2016.

Some groups have also demanded the government rewrite the constitution by the end of September to disband the military-appointed Senate and change election laws to make them more democratic, after which the government would resign and hold a new vote. While Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha had earlier made some conciliatory statements and expressed an openness to changing the constitution, yesterday he expressed concern about the demonstrations.

“Many issues that were raised can’t just be solved within one or two days, or one month,” he told reporters, without commenting on the demand for overhauling the monarchy. “There are so many people waiting for the government to help with their problems, not just the youth. Is what they’re doing appropriate?”

The grassroots nature of the protests are unusual for Thailand, where demonstrations over the past two decades have largely been backed by powerful political actors such as former elected leader Thaksin Shinawatra and his rivals in the royal establishment. That presents a potentially greater challenge for Prayuth, a former army chief who led a 2014 coup and stayed in charge after a disputed election last year conducted under rules written by his military government.

‘It’s Historic’

‘There are so many people waiting for the govt to help with their problems, not just the youth. Is what they’re doing appropriate?’ Prayuth (centre) says (pic: Bloomberg)

“The government has no idea how to deal with it,” said Kevin Hewi- son, an expert in Thai politics and an emeritus professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “It has evolved into the first movement that directly links the monarchy to the regime. It’s historic. It’s never been done before.”

Still, the arrests of Arnon and another protest leader last Friday over a July 18 rally, which was then the biggest protest since the lockdown began, appeared to generate fresh momentum for the demonstrations. Over the weekend, a flash mob in central Bangkok demanded the government to stop muzzling critics, while on Sunday saw rallies in several places in northern and north-eastern Thailand.

One of the groups called Free People — a union led by several different organisers — expects a crowd of 10,000 people for a demonstration on Aug 16.

“The plan now is to mobilise more people to join our cause,” said Tattep Ruangprapaikitseree, one of the organisers of Free People group who also inspired youths to gather on July 18. “What the government is trying to do is buy more time.

They haven’t really budged.”

Last week, a vice minister in Prayuth’s office filed a police complaint accusing Arnon of defaming the monarchy. At the rally, he said he wasn’t calling to overthrow the institution. “We have to accept that part of the reason we’re out here today is because we question the role of the monarchy,” Arnon said. “We’re facing a huge problem because there’s been an attempt to push our monarchy further away from democracy.”

At Monday’s protest, a group called United Front of Thammasat and Demonstration made 10 demands including a call for revoking the country’s strict lese- majeste laws criminalising insults against top members of the royal family, which have resulted in lengthy jail sentences.

Other demands include changing the constitution to allow criticism of the king, separating the monarch’s properties from the Crown Property Bureau, aligning the budget for the monarchy with economic conditions, banning the monarch from expressing political opinions and prohibiting the monarchy from endorsing any coups.

The group said the demands weren’t designed to topple the monarchy but rather a “good-faith proposal” to bring it in line with democracy: “It should be able to be controlled, audited and criticised, and it should not be a burden on the people.”

‘Prepared to Listen’

Calls to the Bureau of the Royal Household seeking comments went unanswered. Regarding criticism of the monarchy, government spokeswoman Rachada Dhnadirek noted that certain agencies were in charge of the issue and protests were allowed when they’re not breaking the law.

“Everyone has rights to assembly and to express opinions as long as it’s lawful and as long as protesters manage their infection risks carefully,” she said by phone. “The government is prepared to listen and is ready to allow changes in the constitution after it passes through its process.”

Since taking the throne in 2016, Vajiralongkorn has repeatedly displayed his authority as head of state in Thailand’s constitutional monarchy. He rejected his sister’s shock candidacy for prime minister ahead of last year’s election, rebuked exiled former premier Thaksin as well as a number of royal aides, and took command of some army units. Thaksin had said the election was “rigged”, citing a host of reasons including a “self- serving” new constitution written by the junta.

Vajiralongkorn has also gained ownership of Crown Property Bureau assets through legal changes he approved. His stakes in Siam Commercial Bank pcl and Siam Cement pcl, two major listed Thai firms, are worth about US$6.7 billion (RM28.07 billion) combined, according to the firms’ websites and Bloomberg calculations. The full value of the bureau’s real estate and other holdings isn’t clear.

The latest demonstrations come at a perilous time for South-East Asia’s second-largest economy, which is dependent on tourism and trade. GDP may slump 8.5% this year — its steepest contraction ever — as the coronavirus pandemic has kept foreigners away from Thai- land’s beaches and decimated its manufacturing sector.

“Larger and prolonged protests pose a potential disruption” to efforts to rescue the economy, said Naris Sathapholdeja, chief economist at TMB Bank pcl in Bangkok. “Dissonance among the people affected by the pandemic could lead to political instability.”

Prayuth recently appointed a new economic team, including a new finance minister and central bank governor, to spearhead efforts to galvanise the economy after its worst economic contraction on record in the second quarter. While the economy has reopened and virus infections have been kept under control, a strengthening currency — the baht is up nearly 4% over the past three months, making it the strongest performer in Asia — is weighing on the outlook.

‘Organic Roots’

“More people from different groups of society could join the movement, especially if the new economic team or new policies can’t do enough for the economy,” said Punchada Sirivunnabood, an associate professor of politics at Mahidol University near Bangkok.

Public references to matters or laws related to the monarchy have escalated in recent months, particularly on social media. The latest demonstrations have seen various groups, from college students to young gay, lesbian and transgender communities, using digital spaces to set meetings and spread their demands via hashtags.

The style of organising is more reminiscent of the leaderless flash mobs that occurred in Hong Kong and other parts of the world rather than previous ones in which Thai protesters shut down certain streets in Bangkok and stayed for months. The tactics show that no one group is in charge, according to Hewison.

“It’s not being coordinated and has organic roots,” he said. — Bloomberg