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Thai Pro-democracy Movement Makes Comeback to Push for Monarchy Reform

Protest leader Parit "Penguin" Chiwarak (with crown) shows the three-finger salute during a demonstration to mark the 89th anniversary of the abolition of absolute monarchy in Bangkok, Thailand, June 24, 2021. (Reuters)
Protest leader Parit "Penguin" Chiwarak (with crown) shows the three-finger salute during a demonstration to mark the 89th anniversary of the abolition of absolute monarchy in Bangkok, Thailand, June 24, 2021. (Reuters)

On the 89th anniversary of the end of Thailand’s absolute monarchy, anti-government protesters massed in Bangkok to demand the prime minister’s resignation, constitutional changes and reform of the monarchy.

As dusk fell Thursday, thousands massed around parliament, chanting, “Prayuth, get out!” in reference to Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-O-Cha, the unpopular former army chief who seized power in 2014 with the backing of the current king’s father.

Protesters at a second rally blocked an intersection in downtown Bangkok, as police looked on.

The rallies took place as Thailand faces a resurgence of the coronavirus, its deadliest round so far. The country has had more than 228,530 confirmed cases and 1,740 deaths, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center in the United States.

Demonstrators voiced discontent with the government’s handling of the pandemic, a vaccine rollout and the economy, which contracted by 6.1% in 2020. The International Monetary Fund, however, projects the Thai economy, which was hit hard by the pandemic, will grow by 2.6 percent this year.

The rallies were led by a group known as Ratsadon, or People’s Movement. Earlier street protests fizzled in part because of splits within its leadership, along with legal problems and the spread of the virus that causes the COVID-19 disease.

While not a registered political party, Ratsadon takes its name from the group Khana Ratsadon (People’s Party), which staged a bloodless coup against the monarchy at dawn on June 24, 1932.

Youth-led movement

Organizers want to signal that their youth-led movement for political reform is far from over, despite numerous charges against scores of its key leaders, including alleged defamation of the powerful palace.

Thailand’s "112" charge, named after a section of the country’s criminal code, carries a sentence of up to 15 years in prison per conviction of insulting, defaming or threatening key royals.

The protest movement burst onto the scene last August, electrifying the country over several months with unprecedented direct attacks on the wealth and political power of King Maha Vajiralongkorn and demands for curbs on the monarchy’s clout.

“Last year was all about breaking the ice — bringing to light the issues that were once unspeakable,” Pasarawalee "Mind" Thanakitwibulpol told VOA. “This year is about fleshing out the issues, adding facts and details. After this, the real change will be more tangible. The movement’s dynamic is still there. ... The people will not take it anymore.”

Protesters, including several of those charged with multiple offenses under the penal code, are challenging the monarchy and parliament to write a new charter to “push the ceiling” — a coded reference to their calls for reforms of the monarchy.

The protesters are fueled by social media and members of “Gen Z” age group, many of whom were born about 25 years ago. They say the alliance between the monarchy — by some estimates the world’s richest with a private fortune of anywhere between $30 billion and $60 billion — and the army has turned Thailand into Asia’s most unequal society, where tycoons, palace cronies and the military monopolize many aspects of economic life.

'Stupid and brazen'

“I’ve never seen any government as stupid and brazen as this one in my life. The Prayuth regime will not end today, but it will in three months,” said Jatuporn Prompan, a leader of the older Red Shirt rural pro-democracy movement, addressing demonstrators. The Red Shirts, who were poor urban workers or residents of rural areas, staged anti-government protests in 2010.

“Brothers and sisters, promise me that you will come out every Saturday. If you stay in, you will be their slaves forever,” Jatuporn Prompan said.

For all his unpopularity on the street, Prayuth still appears firmly in power, with the support of the monarchy.

Prayuth also has the backing of a Senate he appointed under an army-written charter, and he recently put key political fixers in place for what many predict could be an early run at re-election once the virus subsides.

Prayuth maintains that his government has the answers to the kingdom’s deeply polarized politics, and he has vowed to reopen Thailand fully to the key tourist sector by early October, regardless of the pandemic situation.

Observers say the protest movement should not be underestimated.

“One shouldn't lose sight of how the movement changed Thailand,” said Matt Wheeler, senior analyst, Southeast Asia, at the International Crisis Group. “It revealed young people as a potent progressive force, gave many thousands of Thais a sense of solidarity and political efficacy — fleeting, perhaps, but also indelible — and eroded the taboo on critical discussion of the monarchy's role in politics and society.”