Thailand’s government banned gatherings of more than five people on Thursday amid escalating three-month protests that have targeted King Maha Vajiralongkorn and Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha.
How did the protests start?
The anti-government protests emerged last year after the courts banned the most vocal party that opposes the government of former junta leader Prayut Chan-o-cha. After a pause during measures to stop the spread of the new coronavirus, protests resumed in mid-July, pushing for the removal of Prayut, a new constitution, and an end to harassment of activists.
Some protesters went further with a list of 10 demands to reform the monarchy, demands that were hailed by tens of thousands of people at a rally in September. The protesters say they are not seeking to end the monarchy, only to reform it, but conservatives are horrified by such attacks on an institution that the constitution says is “enthroned in a position of revered worship.”
What is the government doing?
As of Thursday, the government had said that the protests would be tolerated but that they must respect the law. That changed suddenly after he accused mocking protesters of obstructing Queen Suthida’s motorcade and when thousands gathered at Government House to demand Prime Minister Prayut’s removal.
It imposed emergency measures prohibiting gatherings of more than five people in Bangkok, banned the publication of news or information online that could harm national security, and freed the police to arrest anyone linked to the protests.
Shortly after the measures were imposed, riot police expelled the protesters from Government House and at least three protest leaders were arrested.
What does the palace say?
The Royal Palace has not commented on the protests and demands for reform despite repeated requests.
Who are the protesters?
The majority are students and youth and there is no general leader. Key groups include the Free Youth Movement, which was behind the first major protest in July, and the United Front of Thammasat and Demonstration, a group of students from Bangkok’s Thammasat University, which has championed calls for reform of the monarchy. . Then there’s the Bad Student high school student movement, which also seeks education reform.
Most of the protest leaders are 20 years old, although one of the most prominent figures, human rights lawyer Arnon Nampa, is 36 years old.
What real reforms do the protesters want?
The protesters want to reverse a 2017 surge in the King’s constitutional powers, made a year after he succeeded his late father, the widely revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej. Pro-democracy activists say Thailand is receding from the constitutional monarchy established when absolute royal rule ended in 1932. They say the monarchy is too close to the military and argues that this has undermined democracy.
The protesters also seek the removal of the lèse–majesté law against insulting the King. They want the king to relinquish the personal control he assumed over a palace fortune estimated at tens of billions of dollars, and some army units.
Why else are they unhappy?
Protesters complain that the king endorsed Prayut’s prime ministerial post after last year’s elections that, according to opposition figures, were designed to keep his hands in power. Prayut, who as head of the army led a coup in 2014, says the elections were fair.
The protesters have expressed their anger that the king spends much of his time in Europe. They have also questioned the expense of the Palace and the lifestyle of the king, who has been married four times and took a royal consort last year.
What do the laws of Lèse–Majesté mean?
The monarchy is protected by Section 112 of the Penal Code, which says that whoever defames, insults, or threatens the king, queen, heir or regent will be imprisoned for three to 15 years.
In June, Prayut said that the law was no longer being applied due to “the mercy of Her Majesty.” The Royal Palace has never ruled on this.
Human rights groups say, opponents of the government, including more than a dozen protest leaders, have recently been indicted under other laws, such as anti-sedition and cybercrime.
The government has said that it does not target opponents, but that it is the responsibility of the police to enforce the law.