Thousands of Thai citizens protest demanding democratic reform

Pro-democracy activist Wanchalearm Satsaksit’s kidnapping, which the Thai government has denied any involvement in, sparked a wave of recent protests in Thailand. Source: Chainwit (via Wikimedia Commons)
Thailand has seen weeks of protests demanding democratic reform.

By Tom Kingsbury | Political Editor

The country known as ‘The Land of Smiles’ is going through a political revolution, with large scale protests and rallies against the Thai government and monarchy.

Protesters seek political reform and greater rights for activists and critics of Thailand’s government and monarchy.

Though there has been a history of unrest and protest in Thailand, a fresh wave of opposition has swept the nation, with protests held almost daily since July 18.

On August 16, a large anti-government rally took place, attended by an estimated 10,000 people, according to Bangkok police.

The protests have followed a number of incidents of persecution of Thai political activists, including the kidnapping of exiled pro-democracy voice Wanchalearm Satsaksit in June, perceived by some as a result of his criticism of the Thai government, though the government denies any involvement.

Why are the protests taking place?

In Thailand, criticising the monarchy can see you facing prison time under the controversial article 112 of the criminal code, which states: “Whoever defames, insults or threatens the King, Queen, Heir-Apparent or Regent shall be punished with imprisonment of three to 15 years”.

Until recently, it was difficult for many Thai citizens to express criticisms of the current system, fearing persecution, but following human rights lawyer Anon Nampa’s criticism of the monarchy, many other activists have come out in more open criticism of the system.

Recent protests have been largely driven by young activists, who point to instances of suppression of campaigners against the Thai government or monarchy.

In February, the Thai opposition Future Forward Party (FFP) was forced to disband when a court ruling found it had received a donation from its leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit.

The FFP was particularly popular with younger voters and received the third most seats in the 2019 Thai election. Its dissolution was an unpopular move amongst its young supporters, who saw their votes go to waste.

The case that sparked the current wave of protests, however, was the disappearance of pro-democracy activist Wanchalearm Satsaksit. Satsaksit fled Thailand for Cambodia in 2014 to escape the military, who had seized power that year and had begun to crack down on criticism.

While on the phone to his sister, Satsaksit was kidnapped by armed individuals in June of this year. He is the ninth exiled critic of Thailand’s military and monarchy to become a victim of ‘forced disappearance’ in recent years, though the Thai government has denied any involvement in his disappearance.

Among the nine are Chatcharn Buppawan and Kraidej  Luelert, whose bodies were found along the Mekong River last year, disemboweled and filled with concrete. The Thai army claimed it had no knowledge of what happened to them.

Protesters have three main demands:

  •       The dissolution of parliament and resignation of the Prime Minister
  •       A re-write of the Thai constitution
  •       An end to the harassment of activists and critics of authorities

How have the protests unfolded so far?

Inspired by the long-running protests of many Hong Kong citizens, the Thai protests have been represented as mass public protests, remaining unaffiliated with a particular organisation or party.

The protests have been gaining momentum and are thought to be the largest-scale protests in years. About 10,000 protesters attended a recent anti-government rally in Bangkok, while a nearby rally in favour of the Thai monarchy attracted dozens.

Protesters are using pop-culture references as symbols of the movement, including the three-fingered salute used in the anti-government movement of the Hunger Games franchise.

In the last week, student leader Parit Chiwarak was arrested for taking part in the first of what has been almost daily demonstrations since July 18. Chiwarak is charged with sedition, assault, and holding an event that could spread disease, and footage shows him being carried into an unmarked car by security officials.

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