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Explained: Thailand saw its largest protests this weekend. Here’s what you need to know

These largely student-led protests have been calling for the ouster of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha's government, a reform of the country's political system, and the monarchy.

Written by Neha Banka , Edited by Explained Desk | Kolkata | Updated: September 22, 2020 9:01:34 am
Pro-democracy protesters wave the national flag at the Sanam Luang field during a protest in Bangkok, Thailand, Saturday, Sept. 19, 2020 (AP)

Thailand saw one of the largest anti-government protests this weekend. Although it had seemed that Covid-19 had temporarily brought the protests to a halt, by mid-July, Thailand’s pro-democracy activists and ordinary citizens were out again on the streets, demanding fresh elections, the drafting of a new constitution, and increasing civil rights and freedoms.

Why are protests happening?

These largely student-led protests have been calling for the ouster of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha’s government, a reform of the country’s political system, and the monarchy.

On the surface, the protests are a result of the 2014 political coup that allowed Prayut Chan-o-cha to gain political control and eventually become the nation’s Prime Minister. In the six years that have followed, the country’s military has steadily expanded its influence and powers, pushing Thailand towards military control.

During the past few years, observers say that civil rights have been curbed, ordinary citizens have faced economic hardship and critics have been silenced. These underlying causes have been at the root of these ongoing protests.

Pro-democracy protesters wearing masks sometimes used to avoid tear gas create a human chain during a march near Sanam Luang in Bangkok, Thailand, Sunday, Sept. 20, 2020. (AP)

Some observers believe that the protests in Thailand occurred following the dissolution of the Future Forward Party in February this year, following orders passed by Thailand’s Constitutional Court. This political party was relatively new, and had been formed in 2018, with the goals to restrain the military’s powers and interference in the political spectrum and to tackle social and economic inequality in the country.

When the party was dissolved earlier this year, the court had stated that one of the grounds for its orders was that the court believed that the Future Forward Party had violated electoral rules by receiving an illegal loan. The court also banned 16 leaders of this party banned from politics for 10 years in the country.

Following the court’s orders, critics had believed that the ruling would only heighten political tensions in the country, and increase a feeling of mistrust against the government. Since August, protesters have been more focused on their demands on reforming the monarchy.

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What happened this weekend?

The protests have also been calling for a reform of Thailand’s monarchy. This weekend, a group of protesters, mostly students, installed a plaque declaring Thailand “belongs to the people” near the Grand Palace in Bangkok, in what was seen as a direct challenge to the monarchy.

Pro-democracy protesters, some in protective tear-gas masks form a human chain during a street march close to Sanam Luang in Bangkok, Thailand, Sunday, Sept. 20, 2020. (AP)

According to a BBC report, an inscription in Thai on the plaque reads: “The people have expressed the intention that this country belongs to the people, and not the king.” The BBC reported that the plaque was a replacement for one that had been installed in the 1930s but had been missing since 2017.

Reuters reported that Thai police had decided not to use violence against protesters but had increased security in the capital. After police prevented protesters from marching to Government House, the office of the Prime Minister and cabinet ministers, the protesters changed direction and marched towards the royal family’s guards, to hand over a letter containing the demands.

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Why are protests happening against the monarchy?

Thailand has strict lèse-majesté laws and that means that crimes and offenses against the monarchy are punishable by law. One of the provisions in Thailand’s constitution includes subjecting any person who criticizes the monarchy to secret trials and lengthy prison sentences.

Rights groups have said that the evasive terminology used in these laws have made it easy for the government and the royal family to misuse them, especially to silence and retaliate against critics and other political opponents.

In January this year, just a month before the Future Forward Party was dissolved by Thailand’s Constitutional Court, one of the many charges levelled against the party included that it was purportedly trying to overthrow the monarchy as well as having links to the Illuminati. The Future Forward Party’s founder and leader, Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, along with other party members had been accused of being “part of an anti-monarchist movement”, the BBC had reported earlier this year.

Thailand’s royal family has considerable influence over the country’s political system and is revered by citizens. Many, particularly young Thais, have increasingly started questioning the monarchy’s role, its privileges, and the power it has exerted in the country for years.

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