On September 20th, the second day of an organized occupation of Sanam Luang or the “Royal Field” in Bangkok, protest leaders installed a plaque reclaiming the public space as the “People’s Field”. It contained the inscription “Plaque of Khana Ratsadon 2020”, or “People’s Party”, invoking the spirit of the group that conducted the 1932 revolution which transformed the Siamese kingdom into a constitutional monarchy. Though the 11-inch brass plaque was removed in less than a day, it has become a symbol of the ongoing movement to restore democratic power to the Thai people.
For the past several months, student-led protests in Thailand have been escalating on an unprecedented scale, with bold demands for democratic and monarchical reforms. Thailand has had a long history of military coups and despotic governments, the latest incarnation being the 2014 coup led by General Prayuth Chan-ocha. After five years of military rule and a questionable election in March of 2019, young people are leading this new wave of demands for institutional change and an end to political repression. Let us take a look at a timeline of the key moments and events of 2020 which have led to this particular political moment.
Note: This article is only a concise timeline displaying key events which have occurred throughout the last several months. The reality of this movement is a complex web of actors who facilitate consistent day-to-day organizing, online and in the streets.
February: Protests against the dissolution of popular opposition party Future Forward
Since its founding in 2018, the Future Forward Party rose to popularity as an opposition party that pitted itself against the military junta and Thai political establishment. Led by young and charismatic business tycoon Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, the party’s progressive platform garnered significant support among young voters and students, winning them over 6 million votes in the March 2019 election.
On February 21st, after a plethora of politically-motivated legal challenges throughout its existence, Thailand’s constitutional court dissolved the Future Forward Party and imposed a 10-year political ban on 16 of its executive members, including popular party leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit. This ruling ignited immediate backlash among the party’s supporters: rallies were being organized across multiple university and high school campuses just the next day. However, these public protests lost momentum in late February as the threat of COVD-19 grew.
June: #Savewalanchalerm – The abduction of exiled activist sparks online campaign and protests
There is a resurgence of protests after Wanchalearm Satsaksit, a prominent Thai pro-democracy activist living in exile in Phnom Phen, was abducted by a group of armed men in front of his apartment on June 4th, according to several witnesses and apartment security cameras. He has not been seen since. This is not an isolated incident: there have been several disappearances of exiled dissidents in recent years, some found later brutally murdered and mutilated. Walanchalearm’s abduction points to Thailand’s long history of state violence and the brutal tactics that have been used to quell political opposition.
July: Free Youth Demonstration announces three demands for government reform
The Free Youth Movement organized an anti-government protest at the Democracy Monument in Bangkok on July 18th. Student representatives made three explicit demands at the demonstration:
- The dissolution of parliament
- The replacement of the current 2017 constitution, which favors the regime
- An end to the harassment of citizens exercising their freedom of expression
From here, protests echoing these demands soon spread throughout the country. Rallies and demonstrations in Bangkok start taking a creative turn, as student organizers utilize pop culture such as the Japanese anime character Hamtaro to galvanize support and draw media attention.
August: Harry Potter Protest and demands for monarchy reform
The Harry Potter-themed protest of August 3rd marked an unprecedented turning point in the movement, where open criticism of the monarchy was introduced. At this “Harry Potter versus He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named” rally (a not so subtle allusion to the current King), outspoken human rights lawyer Anon Nampa called for curbs to the monarchy’s power. Lese majeste and sedition laws, which could land dissidents up to 15 years of jail time, have successfully deterred public discussion of the royal family for years. According to communications professor Penchan Phoborisut, this moment “shattered the glass ceiling of criticism against the monarchy”. Anon Nampa was arrested a few days later under sedition charges but was later released.
At a demonstration at Thammasat University on August 10th, Student Union of Thailand spokesperson Panusaya “Roong” Sithijirawattanakul, took the criticism one step further by introducing a 10-point demand for monarchy reform.
September- Weekend-Long mass demonstration
The biggest demonstration yet took place on the weekend of September 19th, where thousands of protestors marched and rallied in Bangkok and repeated their demands for government and monarchy reforms. The “People’s Plaque” mentioned at the start of this article was installed on the second morning of this demonstration, meant to replace the original plaque commemorating the Siamese revolution of 1932 which mysteriously disappeared in April of 2017 and was replaced with one containing a pro-monarchy slogan. Later that day, protest leaders declared a victory when the Metropolitan Police Bureau chief agreed to pass their demands on to the President of the Thai Privy Council. Student and protest leader Parit “Penguin” Chiwarak drew on the significance of this moment as he told the crowd: “Our greatest victory in the two days is to show that ordinary people like us can send a letter to royals.”
This demonstration in particular showcased the students’ organizing power and popular support. Before disbanding, protest leaders were already announcing plans for another protest the following week and a major strike on October 14th, a significant day marking the 47th anniversary of the 1973 popular uprising.
October- State of Emergency declared in Bangkok
On October 13th, police forcibly arrested 21 activists who were gathering and making camp near the Democracy Monument in Bangkok in anticipation of the big anti-government protest planned for the next day. Officers were supposedly clearing the street for a planned royal procession.
The planned protest of October 14th began at the Democracy Monument, with protesters then moving to the Government House to demand the resignation of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-Ocha. Though the protests remained largely peaceful, there were some reports of clashes between the pro-democracy demonstrators and royalist counter-protestors. At one point, Queen Suthida’s procession unexpectedly passed a group of protesters. Police pushed through the crowd as they shouted political slogans and raised the three-finger salute which has come to be the symbol of the movement. Two protesters, Bunkueanun “Francis” Paothong and Ekachai Hongkangwan, are to be charged under Section 110 of Thailand’s criminal code for attempting violence against the Queen, facing a maximum sentence of life in prison.
General Prayuth cited this incident and national security concerns as reasons for declaring a state of emergency in Bangkok at 4 a.m. on October 15th. Under this emergency decree, authorities are given broad powers to arrest and detain individuals without charge and impose strict censorship. Any public gathering of five or more has also been banned. According to Human Rights Watch Asia Director Brad Adams, “Invoking the Emergency Decree gives the police the green light to commit rights abuses with impunity.” Thousands of riot police were deployed and at least 22 people were arrested, including many prominent protest leaders.
Authorities ramped up their repression of the protests which continued to grow in size despite the emergency decree. On October 16th, police started using water cannons to disperse crowds in Bangkok. The water was laced with an apparent teargas chemical and blue dye to identify protestors. Scores of people, including journalists, were forcibly arrested in the chaos and arrest warrants have been put out for various protest leaders.
What does this mean for human rights in Thailand?
The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which protects the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, was ratified by Thailand in 1996. However, the Prayuth government continues to repress any criticism and demands for democratic reform, enforcing censorship of the media, prosecuting activists, and now violently cracking down on peaceful protests. As this current student-led movement continues, international pressure is needed to protect protestors and hold the Thai government accountable.
Please visit https://freedomforthai-en.carrd.co/ to access more information on the protests and find out how to help.
Special thanks to CSUF Communications Professor Dr. Penchan Phoborisut for her assistance in compiling resources and providing feedback for this article.