Eastern Times International Desk: Thailand is witnessing an unprecedented surge of protests sweeping across the country in recent months, led by high school and university students who are calling for major democratic reforms including reforming the monarchy.
Some of the protesters have broken a longstanding taboo and risked prison sentences, to demand the power and wealth of the country’s monarchy be curbed.
Protests have been building up since mid-July, with youth-led groups demanding a new constitution and elections, as well as removal of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-O-Charayut, a former army chief who led a coup in 2014.
Among the protesters were many of former PM Thaksin Shinawatra’s red shirt followers, who are out in the streets after a decade, to mark the anniversary of a 2006 coup that ousted Shinawatra.
Young people say they are fed up with an establishment that has undermined their democratic rights and the country’s progress.
An estimated 10,000 protesters reportedly turned out for the last major rally on August 16.
The organizers are a group of students from Bangkok’s Thammasat University that has been among the most vocal about the royal family’s role in Thailand, and who asserted at the rally that they hope “to adapt it to society.”
“I believe the institution can be modernized,” said a rally-goer in his mid-20s who declined to be named. Another protester wore a fake crown and a shirt that said, “please realize this country belongs to the people.”
The coronavirus pandemic had halted the demonstrations, but only temporarily. Under lockdown, frustration with the authorities mounted. While Thailand has managed to avoid a major coronavirus outbreak, the economic impact of the pandemic has been devastating, and has highlighted the country’s yawning gaps in equality.
Online, anger among protesters increasingly targeted the monarchy, with the hashtag “#whydoweneedaking?” posted more than a million times.
While organizers predicted as many as 50,000 people will march over two days in an area of the capital historically associated with political protests, police said at least 18,000 people took part in the Saturday rally and Reuters reported the turnout was at least 30,000.
King Maha Vajiralongkorn assumed the throne following the death of his father, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, in 2016 was not in Thailand on rally Saturday and has spent much of his time in Europe since he ascended the throne and he has since strengthened his authority, bringing the wealth of the crown and key army units under his direct control.
Demonstrations began on university campuses at the start of the year in response to a court decision to dissolve Future Forward, a prominent opposition party. The party was especially popular among young people during last year’s election – a vote that was supposed to return Thailand to democracy following a 2014 military coup but was instead marred by claims of irregularities, and which critics say was skewed in favor of the army.
In June, discontent flared further when it was reported that pro-democracy activist Wanchalearm Satsaksi had been abducted in Cambodia. Rights groups say he is the ninth exiled activist to disappear in recent years. The government and military have denied involvement.