Protests in Thailand: Youth versus establishment

Protests in Thailand: Youth versus establishment

Students demonstrate in Thailand. At first their criticism was directed only against the king. Now they are calling for fundamental reforms.

Thailand’s youth are rebelling – with violent criticism of the royal family and the largest demonstration to date against the military-affiliated government under ex-army chief Prayuth Chan-o-cha. Protests had already started in Thailand’s universities and schools in February, but were interrupted because of the corona pandemic. Now students, schoolchildren and other activists have been back on the streets for weeks – despite all the repression. The AFP news agency estimates that around 4,000 people took part in protests on the outskirts of Bangkok earlier this week.

Two leading activists were arrested a few days ago. Criticism of the government from earlier putschists around Prayuth and their political cronies threatens arrests and charges, mostly for incitement and violations of the ban on gatherings.

While the students initially insisted primarily on free and fair elections, the end of state-sanctioned violence against dissidents and changes to the controversial constitution, which cemented the power of the military in the long term, the demands of some now go deeper.

They shake the anti-democratic foundations with the close ties between the anything but politically neutral royal family and the feudal establishment made up of the military, technocrats, aristocrats and Bangkok money nobility. The criticism thus goes beyond the previously expressed allegation that King Maha Vajiralongkorn is leaving his home in the lurch in the midst of the corona crisis and prefers to reside in luxury in Bavaria instead of Bangkok.

The protesters know about the risk they are taking. Thailand has the toughest law against lese majesty in the world: If you are found guilty on a single charge, you face up to 15 years in prison. In some cases, defendants have been locked away for decades. All the more unprecedented was the statement that a student read out on a campus at Thammasat University in Bangkok: It contains demands aimed at reforming the monarchy on a lasting basis.

Since 1932 the absolute monarchy was abolished and the constitutional one introduced, the people have hoped “that our country would be a democracy with the king as head of state who really stands above politics”. This hope has not been fulfilled, the statement said, and that is the root of political problems.

Before the current King Vajiralongkorn was proclaimed in December 2016, his father Bhumibol Adulyadej had sat on the throne for more than 70 years. Unlike his son, Bhumibol was deeply revered by many Thais. Vajiralongkorn is accused, among other things, of having secured sole control of the palace’s assets, which, according to media reports, are estimated at over 30 billion and sometimes over 50 billion US dollars.

The students’ statement now states that a passage should be added to the constitution that would allow politics to investigate the king’s wrongdoing. Also, Thailand’s king will no longer be allowed to approve military coups in the future.

The reactions of the opponents were not long in coming: the demonstrators had gone too far. Thailand’s army chief Apirat Kongsompong, who is notorious for denigrating pro-democratic activists and politicians, had previously spoken out: “hatred of the nation” is a greater threat than the coronavirus.

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