The government of Thailand has once again imposed a state of emergency to quell the ongoing demonstrations in the country. The prime minister of Thailand has put a ban on all big gatherings or protests against his government which is fairly unpopular among Thai people especially among the youth.
General Prayut Chan-o-cha was the Thai army chief who led a military junta in 2014 to topple the democratically elected government of Yingluck Shinawatra. After five-years of direct military rule, the good general got himself elected as prime minister of Thailand in 2019. Now protesters are demanding his resignation and some reduction in the powers of the king. According to the emergency order, not more than four people can gather at any place. Stringent curbs are in place for the media so that they do not propagate any news that is against the ‘national interest’ or that may create a law-and-order situation.
Obviously, the retired general – with the serving ones – is going to decide what is best for the national interest, and they will have all firepower to crush opponents in the name of maintaining law-and-order. The current wave of protests started in July when students launched a movement to challenge the Thai military that dominates the economy and politics of the country. These protests are the biggest demonstration of the people’s power in many years, as hundreds of thousands of people have participated in them. The protesters are against the royal system that stands in the way of all democratic reforms in the country.
Since the royal system in Thailand is suitable to the army, it has tried to protect its ‘sanctity’, and nobody can easily criticize the king or his family, and get away with it. The punishment for the violators of royal veneration is many years in prison. Before the large protests started, in February 2020 a Thai court had ordered the dissolution of a newly-elected and pro-democracy opposition party. Like in many other countries, Thailand too has seen a collusion between the army and the judiciary that collectively disbands democracy time and again. Public opinion is none of their concern, and they don’t allow public representatives and leaders to work freely either.
For this purpose, they present such a system as a panacea where the source of power does not lie with the people’s vote but with the gavel and the gun. It means that in Thailand, the army’s gun and the judiciary’s gavel have been in cahoots to crush any democratic aspirations, freedom of expression, and organized political activities. A political organization, the Future Forward Party (FFP), is fairly popular among the people; especially the youth. This party scored pretty well in the army-managed parliamentary elections of March 2019 and stood third in the tally of seats.
In June 2020, a popular democratic leader – the 37-year-old Satsaksit – disappeared in Cambodia triggering protests in Bangkok. After the Thai army once again staged a coup d’ etat in 2014, many democratic leaders had to flee the country. They sought asylums in other countries to continue their struggle from there. In many other countries too, when political leaders find democratic space shrinking, they seek refuge in other countries because if they return they have to face concocted cases against them. But the Thai military and its secret outfits, can even strike in other countries to kidnap and even kill their opponents.
That is why the protesters in Thailand are accusing the Thai state of such kidnappings, whereas the accused always deny such charges. Another demand of the protesters is that the general who mounted the coup to usurp power and then got himself elected as prime minister must resign and the country be run according to a democratic constitution. They also demand that state institutions and officials stop harassing pro-democracy activists.
A major figure in this movement is a 22-year-old girl, Panusaya, who is challenging the Thai Royal dynasty. She delivered a daring speech on stage in front of thousands of students and exhorted them to challenge the king and his family. She presented a 10-point agenda demanding reforms in the royal system. Interestingly, in Thailand right from childhood everyone is taught to ‘love’ the royal dynasty and the school education instills a feeling of fear and awe towards the king. This is typical of those countries where state institutions go against the will of the people. Such states create an atmosphere in which you are afraid of talking about certain families, institutions, and office holders.
This helps the dominating forces in society fulfil their own interests and keep exploiting people behind the facade of a certain system. In Thailand any criticism of the royal dynasty can land you in jail for up to 15 years. Remember Baba Jan who has been languishing in jail for years in Gilgit? That is the reason students such as Panusaya in Thailand are mobilizing themselves and challenging the dominant powers. One of the points in Panusaya’s 10-point charter of demands is that the royal family be held accountable to elected bodies.
Such demands are of paramount significance as no country can see its democracy flourish unless all people and institutions are answerable to the people as represented by their elected institutions. Similarly, the Thai opposition is also demanding a reduction in royal expenses and a ban on any royal intrusions in politics. Actually, the royal family is just a symbol that represents the dominance of the Thai army which uses the royal family as a protection to its own benefits so that higher officials can enjoy their elite and royal-like status.
When Panusaya demanded that everyone be bound by the constitution and laws, and nobody be above the accountability process, the Thai media loyal to the king started crying hoarse and repeating the same hackneyed mantra of the sanctity of and veneration for state institutions. In the Thai media there are many venal professionals who are artificially vaulted to become ‘senior anchors’ or analysts. Then they launch a campaign against pro-democracy and human-rights activists and support anti-democratic or non-democratic institutions. After the rally that Panusaya led, pro-kingdom trolls on social media waged a relentless onslaught against her, and targeted anyone who dared talk about civilian supremacy in Thailand.
Their usual refrain is that the protesting students are playing in the hands of politicians. There is little doubt that Thailand is one of those handful countries where even in the 21st century most elements and institutions of the state are directed by the gun – and the gavel validates such directions. From education and the judiciary to the media and the police, nearly every field has sleuths who report on all pro-democracy activists or thinkers who talk about civilian and constitutional supremacy as a primary ingredient of a democratic dispensation.
A powerful Thai general categorically termed all protesters as disloyal to their country, with a caution that the Thai army will never tolerate any criticism of the royal family. That’s how the Thai generals reserve the sole honour of loving the country and do not even hesitate to declare all people as enemies of the country. That is the reason they keep dear their own interests more than the interests of their citizens. Panusaya has also shared her childhood stories about how in schools, state officials compel pupils to raise the Thai flag and slogans supporting the king.
They force children to wait on pavements for the royal convoys and express their ‘love’. What a strange way of generating love by force!
The writer holds a PhD from the University of Birmingham, UK and works in Islamabad.
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