from Asia Unbound

Crackdown Looming for Thai Protests

Demonstrators are seen as water cannons are being used during an anti-government protest as lawmakers debate on constitution change, outside the parliament in Bangkok, Thailand, on November 17, 2020.
Demonstrators are seen as water cannons are being used during an anti-government protest as lawmakers debate on constitution change, outside the parliament in Bangkok, Thailand, on November 17, 2020. Athit Perawongmetha/Reuters

November 19, 2020

Demonstrators are seen as water cannons are being used during an anti-government protest as lawmakers debate on constitution change, outside the parliament in Bangkok, Thailand, on November 17, 2020.
Demonstrators are seen as water cannons are being used during an anti-government protest as lawmakers debate on constitution change, outside the parliament in Bangkok, Thailand, on November 17, 2020. Athit Perawongmetha/Reuters
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Pavin Chachavalpongpun is associate professor at Kyoto University’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies.

Thais woke up on Thursday to breaking news: Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha had issued a statement informing the public that the government and all security agencies will adopt much tougher measures in dealing with protesters who have been gathering regularly in Bangkok, to call for constitutional changes, a new government, and even reforms to the monarchy. This statement by Prayuth implies that the draconian lèse-majesté laws, and harsh displays of force, might be employed against some of the demonstrators. “The situation is not improving,” Prayuth declared, and also said there was “a risk of escalation to more violence.”

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Besides the new order to crackdown issued by Prayuth, other signs suggest that the government and security forces are preparing to use force to end the protests. Although King Vajiralongkorn’s has publicly stated that Thailand is a “land of compromise,” the Thai state has increasingly stepped up pressure on the demonstrators.

On November 17, thousands of protesters attempted to gather in front of parliament to put pressure on legislators to accept a proposal calling for constitutional amendments. Parliament rejected most of their requests, refusing any motions to change the country’s constitution. In the streets, the demonstrators were suppressed by high-speed water cannons mixed with toxic agents, and at least fifty-five people were injured. Someone also reportedly used rubber bullets and possibly live ammunition against the demonstrators, although security forces denied they had fired bullets at the protesters.

At the same time, hardcore yellow-shirt royalists have attempted to provoke the protesters, potentially to help cause violent confrontations between the two sides that would provide a context for a tougher crackdown by the security forces.

The next day, November 18, protesters regrouped and marched toward the Police Department in central Bangkok. The mission was to take action against the police who suppressed the protesters. Demonstrators damaged properties of the Police Department as well as some other public buildings. They sprayed graffiti on the walls and on some roads, including some derogatory messages about the king, such as messages calling for the king to operate under the constitution, rather than exerting political and financial influence not normal in a constitutional monarchy.

When the protest was over, the leaders announced a follow-up meeting, on November 25—and this time it will be at the Crown Property Bureau, which the king has taken personal control of. The protest there will be a means of further highlighting desires for monarchical reform. And they could well be met at that protest by a new show of force.

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While ignoring the protesters’ demands for change, King Vajiralongkorn seems to have decided to appear in more often in public in Thailand these days. One might see this as a strategy of narrowing down the gulf between the monarchy and the people, and potentially defusing public anger.

But even with greater outreach from the king, it has remained an uphill task to win the hearts and minds of Thais willing to demonstrate for change. The protesters, and many other younger Thais, want dramatic shifts. They want the monarchy to be accountable, responsible and transparent, in ways it has never been before in the kingdom.

So, neither side in the standoff seems likely to compromise. And the potential for a more severe crackdown on the demonstrations is growing.

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