Protests shake Bangkok, challenging old guard’s grip

By Hannah Beech

The monsoonal showers did not stop them. Nor did the specter of 8,550 police officers, whose armed presence evoked violently crushed protest movements in Thailand’s past.

Thousands of protesters gathered in Bangkok on Saturday, calling for change: change to Thailand’s military-dominated government, change to the army-drafted constitution and, most explosively, change to the exalted status of the monarchy.

“We have to conquer our fear because if we don’t come out to fight then our future will not improve,” said Rewat Chusub, a 41-year-old tailor sitting under a red umbrella with the gilded Grand Palace as a backdrop.

Even as rain occasionally poured down, muffling the sound system, a procession of speakers addressed a big tent’s worth of issues: the military’s monopoly on power, LGBTQ discrimination, social welfare, women’s rights and the economic impact of the coronavirus.

The most sensitive subject, the role of the monarchy, was brought up late Saturday, with speakers describing a climate of apprehension surrounding discussion of the royal family.

“We were ruled by fear,” said Arnon Nampa, a human-rights lawyer who was charged with sedition last month.

Arnon then referred to the disappearances of exiled activists who had criticized the royal family. Some were later found with their abdomens stuffed with concrete.

“Whoever spoke the truth about the monarchy was exiled or got murdered,” Arnon said.

The monarchy’s place in Thai society was raised publicly for the first time in rallies earlier this summer, shattering convention in a country where criticism of the monarchy had until recently remained taboo.

The weekend rally, which is to carry over into Sunday, is the largest since a military coup in 2014 ushered in yet another army-dominated government for Thailand. Under Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, the junta chief who remains as the nation’s leader after disputed elections last year, the government has tamped down on dissent by detaining activists and invoking states of emergency.

The country is currently under a state of emergency, called amid the coronavirus pandemic, meaning that the protest was technically illegal. Thammasat University, where the protest began, did not officially give permission for the demonstrators to gather there, but they congregated at a campus soccer field anyway, marching past water cannon trucks.

Later, the protesters pushed their way to Sanam Luang, a vast space in front of the Grand Palace that used to be accessible to the public until it was reclaimed for royal purposes in 2012. The protesters have referred to the space as “the people’s field,” rather than “the royal field,” as Sanam Luang means in Thai. An ultimatum Saturday by police to evacuate the grounds went unheeded, and as dark fell few security forces were seen in the immediate area.

Most protesters wore face masks to counter the coronavirus. Volunteers offered squirts of hand sanitizer. Umbrellas warded off a drizzle.

“These protests aren’t about who will be the leader of Thailand but about how we need to value democracy and human dignity for all Thais,” said Duanghathai Buranajaroenkij, a lecturer in human rights and peace studies at Mahidol University in Bangkok. “This is the first open public space to talk about everything, from LGBT issues to women’s rights. And nothing’s taboo, not the monarchy, not abortion, not sex.”

Some right-wing government supporters have, without evidence, accused the United States of funding the Thai demonstrations, prompting the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok to issue a statement denying any involvement in the protest movement. Similar charges were leveled against the U.S. Consulate in Hong Kong, again without any proof that the United States was providing financial aid to the pro-democracy protests there.

“The United States does not support any individual or political party,” the statement said. “We support the democratic process and rule of law.”

The protests began earlier this year with students calling for an end to restrictive school rules, such as mandatory haircuts and the custom of bowing on the ground in front of teachers. But as Thailand emerged from its coronavirus lockdown, with fewer than 60 deaths attributed to the virus, the student rallies broadened to encompass other demands.

At first, the largely leaderless movement focused on three reforms: fresh elections, a new constitution and an end to the persecution of political dissidents. But by August, some members of the protest movement began pressing 10 demands, including assurances that the monarchy will not be held above the constitution.

Although the mood remained relatively festive Saturday night, Thailand’s history of political bloodshed added a somber note to the rally. Some students said their parents had warned them against joining the overnight protest because they feared their children might be shot by soldiers. The presence Saturday of so-called red shirt protesters, veterans of previous street rallies, also led to worries of political escalation.

In 2010, security forces used lethal force to clear out red shirt protesters who had occupied a central business district for weeks. About 100 people lost their lives in political violence that year. In 1992 and 1976, protesters, many of them university students, were targeted in massacres that have cast a shadow on military governments since.

“A lot of people may die,” said Panusaya Sithijirawattanakul, a student leader who has been critical of the monarchy’s lavish traditions, ahead of the rally. “But to have freedom we need to take great risks.”

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