Rare Thai protests against monarchy, government have no easy solutions

Protesters clad in Harry Potter outfits have taken to the streets of Bangkok demanding political change and reforms to the monarchy led by King Maha Vajiralongkorn, in a rare act of defiance in a country where defaming royalty attracts a 15-year jail sentence.

Several demonstrations have taken in the last two weeks and while the Harry Potter-themed garb of the young protesters grabbed attention – some in the crowd vowed to "cast a spell to protect democracy" – there was a serious purpose to the rally.

The protesters have three key demands: that parliament be dissolved, the constitution be re-written and the harassment of government critics ends.

Anti-government protesters wave chopsticks as makeshift wands while they take part in a Harry Potter themed rally in Bangkok on Monday.Credit:Getty Images

The government of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, a former general and junta leader who claimed victory in a March 2019 election that marked a questionable transition back to civilian rule, is in their sights.

But more unusually, Monday’s protest called for curbs to the power of the King, who after coming to the throne in 2016 took personal control of several army units and palace assets worth tens of billions of dollars.

Thai King Maha Vajiralongkorn is carried on a palanquin outside the Grand Palace in Bangkok for the public to pay homage to him on the second day of his coronation ceremony last year.Credit:AP

Lawyer Anon Nampa, 34, accused the palace of taking on increasing powers that undermined democracy and of inaction in the face of attacks on opponents of Prayut's government.

"Talking about this is not an act to topple the monarchy, but to allow the monarchy to exist in Thai society in the right way and legitimately under a democratic and a constitutional monarchy,"

Thailand has some of the strictest lèse-majesté laws in the world – defaming the monarchy is punishable by up to 15 years in prison – and while none of the protesters at Bangkok's democracy monument were stopped, police warned suspected offences would be investigated.

Monday's rally was relatively small, with just around 200 people attending, but a larger one is being planned for August 10.

The protests began earlier this year but stopped when the coronavirus outbreak hit. Now, with the virus seemingly in hand in the kingdom (just 3321 cases have been recorded) and the tourism-dependent economy in a slump, the protests have resumed.

Aside from the country's economic woes, which have been exacerbated by the coronavirus, the dissolution of the Future Forward party in February has angered many young Thais.

Police monitor an anti-government protest in Bangkok on Monday.Credit:Getty Images

The party had fared strongly in the March 2019 election, its first poll, and attracted the support of a large cohort of young people voting for the first time but was dissolved by the Constitutional Court because of alleged violations of electoral donation laws.

Brad Adams, the executive director of Human Rights Watch's Asia Division, said it was "astonishing that the Thai government trumpets its success in containing COVID-19 but then is unwilling to end the rights-abusing emergency decree [to contain the disease]".

"It's become clear that the continuation of this draconian law is more about containing protests and intimidating students then it is about the need for inter-agency management [of the disease] that the Thai govt is trying to make," he said.

"Young people who voted overwhelmingly for Future Forward are still angry at the government for its action to dissolve the party that they voted for. The youthful protesters' dissatisfaction runs from the government and the prime minister on to higher levels."

With more, and potentially larger protests expected, the Thai government appears to face two options: crack down on the protesters and target its leaders or, alternatively, attempt to find some kind of accommodation without giving in to any of the key demands.

What, if anything, the King will do remains to be seen.

– with Reuters

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