Thai Authorities Throw the Book at Students

Protests, thought snuffed out by Covid-19, spring back to life

Thai student protests are rekindling in Bangkok with authorities, increasingly skittish over massive protests against the military next door in Myanmar, trying to deter the protesters by arrest and prosecution, and with heavy-handed tactics against demonstrators challenging police lines.

On March 20, around 3,000 students intent on marching to the Grand Palace were blocked by walls of shipping containers. After students tugged two containers away with long ropes, police fired water cannons, tear gas and rubber bullets, injuring at least 30 students and a number of journalists. After crowds dispersed, police searched back streets, arresting 32 students, charging them with various offenses relating to breaking rules about the gathering of crowds during the emergency decree.

Police also raided a local publisher, Samesky Publishing and seized copies of a book “Monarchy and Thai Society,” with speeches from earlier rallies, prepared by the Restart Democracy, or Redem group, one of the organizers of the protest.

A follow-up rally organized by the nonviolent Thammasat Restart Democracy Group to support a number of students reporting to prosecutors, went back to their festive stall format. This attracted more than 1,000 students without a violent confrontation.

This month, police arrested Francis Bunueanun Paothong a student protest leader, along with four others on charges of harming the liberty of the queen last October when her motorcade came upon a student protest unannounced. This indictment – sedition -- under Section 110 of the Penal Code, carries the maximum penalty of life in prison. It has never been explained how the queen’s motorcade was allowed to come into direct contact with the student protest by police. Francis strongly claims he is innocent of these charges, with critics saying the motorcade route was deliberately switched to foment such charges.

More than 76 people have been charged under the country’s draconian lèse-majesté laws, which are among the world’s strictest and carry a maximum 15-year jail term. Nineteen students on these charges have been refused bail and are in prison. Police have been searching CCTV footage for more students to charge, putting fear into those who are attending protests. It appears police are focusing on the leaders of the protests in an attempt to destroy the organizing group. Last year, police were outsmarted by the leaders, who were able to switch locations, protest groups would gather and march to, on no notice.

In response to concerns that Thai people are losing faith in the monarchy, the authorities have launched a drive to enhance loyalty at a time where the monarchy has been openly criticized by the students. Rebuilding respect for the 68-year-old Maha Vajiralongkorn, known as Rama X, is problematical. Where previously his behavior could be covered up, his antics have spread unstoppably across social media, showing him cavorting in Germany in bizarre, cropped bra-like singlets and covered with fake tattoos. He antagonized a large slice of his 70 million-odd subjects by rarely returning to the country, usually only for ceremonial commemorations, even as the Thai people suffered from the devastating economic downturn from the Covid-19 pandemic.

He famously rid himself of one consort, jailed her, then publicly brought her back as a general in his own private military. Public loss of faith in the monarchy has forced him to spend more time in the country, tending to ceremonial affairs. Nonetheless, there is a host of material freely available on the internet that is critical of him.

In ceremonies around the country, he is promoted alongside his still revered late father, Bhumibol Adulyadej, Rama IX, in an effort to help restore credibility to the monarchy.

Authorities have also started a propaganda war against student groups. One group, Free Youth, was heavily criticized for their new logo last November, with R and T, for reset Thailand, resembling a communist sickle on a red background. Pro-establishment media played up a protest on 6th March, claiming 90 police were injured and one officer died of a stroke. Ultra-royalist circles are claiming third parties are involved and controlling the student movement, although offering no evidence.

The younger Thai generation doesn’t identify with past political groups. They have a completely different vision for Thailand, which doesn’t include being led by the old establishment. They are seeking change in the very heart of the establishment, something political parties would not dare to talk about in the past. Student demands are centered on seeking change in the political system that keeps the elite in power.

With parliament unable to deal with these issues, and the failure of non-violent mass protests last year to bring change, a new and more militant chapter in the student protest movement is beginning.

Protests, which reached a crescendo in December last year, were hampered by the earlier banning from politics of a popular young leader, Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, and the dissolution of his Future Forward Party, which finished strongly in national elections with widespread youth support. The shutting down of Future Forward denied students any political voice, which led to Thammasat University students organizing ‘leaderless’ demonstrations and protests in the Bangkok city center last year. Demonstrations of this size hadn’t been seen in Bangkok since ex-politician Suthep Thaugsuban organized the ‘Shutdown Bangkok’ rallies that led to the downfall of the Yingluck Shinawatra government and the installation of former army leader Prayuth Chan-ocha as prime minister in a military-led coup in 2014.

The December protests, however, were suddenly put off as Covid-19 cases spiked after an outbreak at a wet market in Samut Sakhon, near Bangkok. The first series of protests last year were, on the whole, peaceful expressions over students’ core grievances, through the symbolic handing of letters to authorities demanding Prayuth’s resignation, theatre, music, dance, and artistic festivities. Many protests had a carnival-like atmosphere, where curious onlookers joined in. Remnants of the red shirt movement organized mobile speaker platforms on the back of trucks, so speeches could be given to the crowds. Street stalls were also attracted to the events, doing brisk trade in food and souvenirs.

The Covid-19 pandemic, emergency laws, and fear of arrest are now keeping student numbers down on the streets, where they are numerically outnumbered by riot police. General support for the student movement is not forthcoming, as the old red shirt movement supporting the ousted former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra was decimated by the military a decade ago. New allies like Thanathorn have been banned, where he may only make cameo appearances, riding on a skateboard at some demonstrations.

In consequence, the hardline student splinter groups are now turning to more direct action, as their strategy against authorities. They are intent on testing the resolve of the authorities, while the authorities are now intent on breaking the spirit of the protestors through harsh action on the streets, and arresting all the ringleaders of the student movement.

This year-old movement has shown the consequences of eliminating political voices within the country. The dissolution of Future Forward triggered a much wider political movement within the young generation. It is a generation that has seen the change in Thailand’s political system from a haphazard democracy during the Thaksin years, two military coups and a pseudo-democracy which serves the interests of the establishment. The hardline stance the authorities are taking against those criticizing the monarchy will either bring absolute fear into those tempted criticize, or open a Pandora’s box that cannot be closed.

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