By Tom Kingsbury | Political Editor
In the wake of months of protests, which have called for reforms and spoken out against the Thai government and monarchy, at least seven activists have been charged for breaking a law against criticising the Thai monarchy.
The law has not been in use for over two years, but after a wave of Thai protests, led by students, key figures in the movement now face charges from the highly controversial law.
The lèse-majesté, or ‘doing wrong to majesty’, law has historically been applied using secret trials and harsh sentencing, meaning almost no criticism of Thai royalty for years. It states:
“Whoever defames, insults or threatens the King, Queen, Heir-Apparent or Regent shall be punished with imprisonment of three to 15 years”.
The use once again of this law follows a week in which protesters clashed with police in Thailand’s capital, Bangkok. The protesters used umbrellas and inflatable ducks, defending themselves from police water cannons reportedly laced with chemicals.
More than 40 people were injured in the protests, and later that day protesters threw paint on the police headquarters in Bangkok, both in response to the injuries and the government’s rejection of a proposal to reform the constitution.
The renewed use of the law also comes ahead of a planned protest at the Crown Property Bureau, the institution in charge of the royal fortune. Thailand’s King Vajiralongkorn caused controversy when he claimed his share of the royal assets, which are traditionally controlled by the Bureau.
King Vajiralongkorn is reportedly the one who called for the law to be brought back into use, and despite some royalists maintaining support, many citizens in the last few months have been openly criticizing the Thai monarchy.
Until recently, it was difficult for many Thai citizens to express criticisms of the monarchy, fearing persecution, but following human rights lawyer Anon Nampa’s criticisms, many other activists became more outspoken.
Now it seems the testing of this law has reached its limits.
Lessons from Hong Kong and the ‘Milk Tea Alliance’
In anticipation of some form of crackdown, Thai protesters have made organistational changes in order to avoid a stall in the protests following the loss of movement leaders.
Following the advice of activist allies in Hong Kong, Thai protesters have been creating a more ‘flat’ and ‘open’ leadership, and sharing the hashtag #everybodyisaleader, hoping to convey that no one figurehead can make or break the protests.
In what is being called the Milk Tea Alliance – named after the popular drink in Hong Kong, Thailand and Taiwan – other protest strategies have been shared too.
Thai protesters are using umbrellas and helmets for self-protection, learning from the lessons of the Hong Kong protests.
They are mobilizing efficiently and on a large scale using social media, coordinating action both online and in Thailand’s streets. One app used in this coordination is Telegram, an app that authorities have attempted to have banned in Thailand, without success.
Also borrowed from Hong Kong are hand signals, used to communicate key information quickly across large-scale protest groups. Signals include the call to put on helmets, to communicate that someone is injured and to disperse in response to a threat.
The protests are being led by Thailand’s youth. The BBC spoke to 16-year-old activist Akkarasorn Opilan, who said:
“This generation of Asian youth, we are not afraid to ask questions, we are not afraid to question authority.”
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