Thailand’s authorities so far are responding relatively calmly to the latest political protests. They need to: like all nations, Thailand has had enough shocks in 2020.
Thailand, a country with a long history of military rule, has an honourable, even heroic, heritage of popular political uprisings. Sadly, the tradition is also tragic.
This is why many people are anxious about the new round of protests erupting through the country.
The protesters are circling around a dangerous fire, talking about reform of the monarchy in a country where the high institution (as it is called) sits, sacrosanct, at the apex of society, defended by an often-used lese majeste law that comes with a penalty of up to 15 years’ imprisonment.
This new generation of Thai protesters is unlike their counterparts in Hong Kong where the demonstrators, for their own security, had no leaders – and so could not withdraw when they had won. Nor could they control the destructive elements in their ranks.
In Bangkok, however, the protesters are taking a more controlled, cautious approach. The main group of demonstrators is working to corral their strongly anti-monarchy colleagues.
The authorities are also trying to keep their response calm, even allowing that people have a right to express their opinions. Under Covid-related emergency laws, the gatherings are illegal but they have gone ahead with police just looking on.
This is all to the good, given Thailand’s history of violent crackdowns.
The most brutal occurred in 1976, in what is euphemistically labelled the October 6 even but would be better called the Thammasat University Massacre. Uncontrolled, but officially tolerated, anti-communist paramilitary groups and police killed between 46 (official count) and 100-plus students (funeral workers’ count) by shooting, bashing and hanging.
The biggest recognised death toll came in the 2010 Red Shirt pro-democracy protests – more than 80, shot by the military.
The new round of demonstrations began on July 18 in Bangkok and has since spread to 44 of Thailand’s 76 provinces. The biggest turnout so far was on Sunday, when a crowd of 12,000 (police count) or up to 30,000 (student count) protested for eight hours at Bangkok’s Democracy Monument, built to commemorate the end, in 1932, of the absolute monarchy.
It was the largest demonstration since the military coup of May 2014.
The organisers began by calling themselves Free Youth but they now go by the more encompassing name of Free People as their support broadens.
They have three demands pointing to a new political order: a new constitution to replace the one written by a military-appointed body in 2017; resignation of the cabinet; and resignation of the parliament.
They say they are sticking to these demands, even though a protest group at the suburban Rangsit campus of Thammasat University, traditionally the most radical college, on August 10 had called for reform of the monarchy, including reform of the laws that make it a criminal offence to criticise the monarch.
The Thammasat students drew up a 10-point reform plan but they were not allowed to put it to last Sunday’s Democracy Monument protest. This was a wise move. The institution of the monarch retains great respect in Thailand. It is not clear that people want the taboo on criticism to be erased.
The king may not be revered in the same way as his late father, who reigned for 70 years, and has not acquired the same moral authority. But he has taken on new tools of power, including gaining control of all crown property (which some estimates say added $US30 billion to his wealth) and having two army regiments transferred to the Royal Security Command.
The authorities generally are trying to react more calmly. In the time after the 2014 coup, many protesters used signs and symbols in the belief that if they did not say anything they could not be arrested. One that they employed was the three-finger sign of mourning from The Hunger Games. The Government was not impressed and started detaining those used it. It was used by the crowd at Sunday’s demonstration, making a dramatic photo, but Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan, one of the Government’s hard men, shrugged it off as being just like the scouts.
In a case of old habits hanging on, however, police are going after six of the leaders of the monarchy reform group, hitting them not with the lese majeste law but getting arrest warrants, according to Bangkok Post, for sedition, computer crimes law offences, violations of the disease control law and for using loudspeakers without permission. The fate of the Rangsit Six will bear close watching.
At the same time, moves are underway in Parliament to begin the process of amending the constitution. They are led by opposition parties but governing coalition parties also support the process. The Government had said it would introduce its own amendment bill but has since changed its mind – raising the question of whether it was serious in the first place.
A big catch with changing the constitution is that merely starting the process requires the support of one-third of senators, the same senators who were handpicked by the military as a way of blocking any unwanted legislative moves.
The agitation for reform is taking place within a nervous polity. Thailand has done exceptionally with in controlling COVID-19, with only 3,381 cases and 58 deaths, but one of its main tools has been very tight border controls – which has throttled international tourism. Travel and tourism normally make up about 20 per cent of the country’s GDP. Exports have crashed, GDP has shrunk by more than 10 per cent this year and millions of people are out of work.
The Government has to continue to react cautiously and calmly to the protests. If there were to be a showdown, it would come at a difficult time for a fragile society. Restraint will be needed to make sure the cycle of protest and brutal suppression is not repeated.
Cameron Douglas is an Australian businessman with interests in Bangkok. In non-Covid times, he travels there often