Thailand witnessed its first youth-led uprising against establishment elites for more than a generation last year.
It began when the Constitutional Court handed down a controversial ruling to disband the Future Forward Party in February.
The political situation had been relatively calm since the military coup in 2014. But early last year, the tide turned against the military-backed government and key institutions that were deemed to be siding with dictatorship.
Future Forward had commanded 81 seats in Parliament after monopolising the youth vote to come third in 2019’s election.
When it was banned, flash mobs sprang up in universities and schools as the younger generation rebelled against those in power.
The pro-democracy protesters took a break during the Covid-19 lockdown, before returning to the streets in July. The protests snowballed, gathering support from wider society as more and more Thais vented frustration at what they perceived as extended junta rule.
The turning point was a rally at Democracy Monument in early August, when human rights lawyer Anon Nampa, 36, called for reform of the monarchy. His action shattered a long-held taboo against public debate of the royal institution, which is guarded by a lese majeste law that carries a penalty of up to 15 years in jail.
Later the same month, Thammasat University student Panusaya “Rung” Sithijirawattanakul, 22, stepped onto a protest stage and issued a 10-point manifesto for monarchy reform aimed at making the institution more transparent and accountable to the people.
The pro-democracy protesters took the name Khana Ratsadon (People’s Movement) and made three demands – Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha must step down, the junta-drafted Constitution must be rewritten, and the monarchy must be reformed.
The government responded with water cannons, teargas and serious legal charges against demonstrators.
On October 14, protesters marched to Government House and camped there overnight to mark the anniversary of the 1973 uprising that ousted a military dictatorship. Early the following morning, the government imposed a severe state of emergency in Bangkok and arrested protest leaders.
On October 26, Khana Ratsadon took their protest to the international stage, marching to the German embassy in Bangkok to ask its government to investigate whether His Majesty the King was ruling Thailand from German soil.
The German foreign ministry later said no evidence was found to support the allegation.
Last month, with no sign of an end to pre-democracy protests, Prayut announced that “all laws” would be deployed against protesters. Police promptly resumed enforcing the lese majeste law (Section 112) against protesters after a two-year hiatus.
Some 37 protesters, including a 16-year-old, have now been summoned to hear lese majeste charges, according to Thai Lawyers for Human Rights.
The move drew condemnation from the UN High Commission for Human Rights, which called for all charges to be dropped against the peaceful protesters and urged the Thai government to amend Section 112.
Protesters took a break from street rallies, but their push to abolish Section 112 saw campaign posters mushroom across Bangkok. They also reminded people of suspected enforced disappearances of Thai political activists since the 2014 coup, by hanging mock corpses at public venues.
Protest leaders vowed to keep up the pressure on the government and elites in 2021, announcing they would intensify their political activities this year.
THE NATION (THAILAND)/ASIA NEWS NETWORK