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Protests Take On Thailand's Monarchy, Despite Laws Banning Such Criticism

2020-08-13 21:02:14

BANGKOK — The plainclothes men showed up late at night near Thammasat University in Bangkok, casing out the residence where the student activist slept. On Thursday morning, Panusaya Sithijirawattanakul went to her sociology class, called her mother and waited for her arrest. She was sure it was to come.

Earlier this week, Ms. Panusaya, 21, stood on a stage during an anti-government protest at Thammasat and addressed, head on, the role of the monarchy in a country where criticism of the institution has been limited by strict lèse-majesté laws.

“In the past, there have been statements fooling us by saying that people born into the royal family are incarnations of gods and angels,” she said at the protest on Monday. “With all due respect, please ask yourselves, are you sure that angels or gods have this kind of personality?”

King Maha Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun, who spends most of his time in Europe, returned to Thailand for his mother’s birthday on Wednesday. By Thursday, the nation’s head of state was gone again, with his fourth wife, the queen.

On the Thammasat campus, like everywhere in Thailand, stands a giant portrait of the king, the 10th monarch of the Chakri Dynasty, dressed in golden brocade with a somber expression on his face.

While the country’s absolute monarchy was toppled by a bloodless revolution in 1932, Thailand remains bound by royal traditions. The father of King Maha Vajiralongkorn reigned for 70 years and was the world’s longest-serving monarch at the time of his death in 2016.

Thailand’s student-led anti-government protests, which have gained momentum this summer, have addressed everything from the disappearance of activists critical of the military and monarchy, to the enduring power of a 2014 coup leader who now serves as prime minister.

Over the last few days, however, they have added a new element to the mix: direct criticism of a royal institution that, through decades of street and student protest, tried to position itself as floating above politics.

In an interview on Thursday, Ms. Panusaya said that Thailand’s problems were rooted in its monarchical traditions.

“I know I am taking a very high risk that I could go to jail or be tortured or die,” she said, “but I don’t think it’s the time to be afraid anymore.”

After the Thammasat protest this week, a university official said that the student organizers had not followed an agreement on what would be discussed at the rally.

A police spokesman said on Thursday that the student protesters were testing the limits with their frank speech.

“To whomever is going to the protest, I believe everyone knows what can and cannot be done,” Col. Kissana Phathanacharoen said. “Things that you say will be tied to you. There will be evidence kept for the future.”

Earlier this month, Gen. Apirat Kongsompong, the army chief, said that while the coronavirus was a curable illness, “hating your own country is a disease that is not curable.”

“If being unpatriotic cannot be cured, do they deserve a similar ending to the students at Thammasat in the 1970s?” said Sunai Phasuk, a senior researcher on Thailand for Human Rights Watch. “This link is one everyone in Thailand will make.”

On Thursday afternoon, amid torrential downpours, a brief rally took place at Srinakharinwirot University in Bangkok amid a large police presence. Some of the organizers said on social media that they were allowed to proceed only if they did not mention the role of the monarchy in their speeches.

Sirin Mungcharoen, an activist at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, said that the 10-point manifesto laid out by Ms. Panusaya at Thammasat was important because “it opened the way for the public to be able to criticize the monarchy.”

Intimidating those who expressed such opinions was wrong, she said, and democratic debate was needed in Thailand.

Still, she added, the protest movement’s main agenda remained ridding the country of its military-drafted constitution, dissolving part of Parliament and ensuring that dissidents didn’t disappear.

“These three demands are what we have demanded since the very beginning” she said. “There has to be respect for human rights.”

Since the coup six years ago, thousands of people who criticized the government have been forced to undergo sessions at “attitude readjustment camps” in military compounds. A computer crimes act and other legislation have been used to imprison others. A state of emergency put in place because of the pandemic is being used to justify actions against student protesters.

As evening fell on Thursday, Ms. Panusaya said she had not yet been arrested. Seeking safety in numbers, she had holed up for the night with other student activists. She was still waiting.

Muktita Suhartono contributed reporting.


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