Thai Pro-Democracy Protesters Plan to Hit the Streets Again When Pandemic Eases

Nontarat Phaicharoen and Kunnawut Boonreak
Bangkok and Chiang Mai, Thailand
2021-01-13
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Thai Pro-Democracy Protesters Plan to Hit the Streets Again When Pandemic Eases Pro-democracy demonstrators gather in Bangkok to send letters to the king asking for reforms to the monarchy, Nov. 8, 2020.
Nontarat Phaicharoen/BenarNews

Thai pro-democracy protesters will return to the streets for mass demonstrations against the government after a new wave of coronavirus infections eases and authorities lift pandemic-related restrictions on public gatherings, leaders of the youth-led movement told Benar News.

The protests began about six months ago and swelled into gatherings in Bangkok with thousands of people calling for the ouster of a government with deep ties to the military and reforms to laws that shield Thailand’s all-powerful monarchy.

The physical protests died down in recent weeks after the government banned large outdoor gatherings as a public health safeguard amid a sharp rise in COVID-19 cases. The new infections stemmed from an outbreak at a seafood market-complex near Bangkok last month.

“When the government eases the travel restrictions and new infections reduce, we plan to arrange a rally again,” activist Panupong “Mike” Jadnok, a leading figure in the anti-government movement, told BenarNews.

“This year, I believe the government will implement even more strict measures to silence us.”

Panupong and other leaders of the movement have been charged with various alleged offenses tied to the protests, ranging from sedition to – more lately – violations of Lese-Majeste, Thailand’s harsh law against royal defamation.   

Although the street protests have paused since the closing weeks of 2020, the anti-government activists said they were carrying on with discussions via social media and online chat rooms.

The leaders of the grassroots movement vowed not to be deterred from pressing on with their core demands, although they face the prospect of being prosecuted and sent to prison for years under Article 112 – the section of the Criminal Code that covers Lese-Majeste.  

Anon Numpa, a human rights lawyer and another pro-democracy activist leader, said the protests would go on into 2021, but possibly in a different format, to adapt to changing circumstances.

“We will absolutely continue, but our movement may not only be in the form of a rally or arranging a speech on the street,” Anon told BenarNews.

“We are now trying to expand the movement in many ways, on social media and to gatherings of a small size.”

Early on during the protests, Anon attracted the world’s attention when he dressed up as Harry Potter, the fictional wizard, as he led one of the gatherings.

“The three demands are the same, it won’t change. When COVID-19 is gone, I will go to different places to emphasize the demands,” he said.

He was referring to the protesters’ core demands: that Prayuth Chan-o-cha, a retired army general who led a military coup in 2014 and has since served as prime minister, resign; the military-backed constitution be revised; and laws empowering the monarchy be reformed.

In mid-November, Prayuth warned that his government would “enforce all pertaining laws” against pro-democracy protesters after it refrained for months from charging them with Lese-Majeste. Since then, authorities have charged at least 37 activists under that law.

Piyarat “Toto” Jongtep, another leader of the movement, said the looming threat of more people being charged with royal defamation would not stop the protesters.

“I’m not intimidated to be charged under Article 112,” he told BenarNews. “I still have faith that leaders and the people are not scared to be charged with Lese-Majeste. We are seeing more resistance to this law.”

As an example, he cited how protesters were defying authorities by putting up banners in public places.

“Raising awareness in this manner will be intensified this year, in my opinion,” Piyarat said.

On Wednesday, a government spokesman said it supported the people’s rights but had to take legal actions against those who broke the laws.

“The current roles of the officers are to take care of the protesters with peace and avoid any forms of violence for their safety,” spokesman Anucha Burapachaisri told BenarNews, referring to police and law-enforcement personnel. 

“However, the behavior of some protesters violated the law, and we had to take legal actions without any discrimination.”

‘Land of compromise’

In a rare public spectacle in early November, King Maha Vajiralongkon (Maha X) and Queen Suthida emerged from the Grand Palace to greet a large crowd of royalists, as the protests still raged in the Thai capital.

“I have no comment,” the king said then in response to a question about the anti-government protesters from a British TV reporter, who accosted the royal couple in the street. Varijalongkorn then repeated three times: “We love them all the same.”

“Thailand is the land of compromise,” the monarch added.

This week, Thai media published friendly photos of the monarch and his royal consort. They wore blue jeans and polo shirts as they swept the floors of a local prison during a visit to a palace-funded project at the Central Women’s Correctional Institution in Bangkok. 

Meanwhile, a prominent right-wing politician who leads Thai Pakdee, an ultra-royalist group, said he backed moves by Prayuth’s government to enforce the laws to their full against the pro-democracy protesters.

“What we want from the government, and we have been asking all along, is that the government should take legal actions against anyone who breaks the law, including under Article 112,” Warong Dechgitvigrom told BenarNews.

“We have to respect the law and we ask the government to publicize the truth for everyone’s understanding.”

In 2021, he said, Thai Pakdee was planning to pursue five goals. These include protecting the constitution in order to foster political reform; supporting elections at the local level; expanding its network to all provinces; and preserving what he called “Thainess.”

Foremost among these goals is “protecting the monarchy because the protesters are trying to destabilize the country’s main pillar,” Warong said. “We need to bring out the truth for everyone.”

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