GP Insights # 427, 18 October 2020
On 16 October, Thailand's Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha chaired an urgently convened meeting of the cabinet and formally approved the state of emergency in Bangkok which was declared a day earlier. The emergency would be in place for a month and comes in the wake of intensifying pro-democracy street protests. The PM also rejected calls to step down and warned about imposing night curfews.
According to the emergency rules, any gathering of five or more people is prohibited; media organizations cannot publish anything that harms the public order and national security; and one could be detained up to 30 days without being charged.
Despite the imposition of emergency, protestors have come out in large numbers in the streets of Bangkok, defying the prohibitory orders. Even as many prominent leaders have been arrested, protestors have vowed to continue with their struggle for democracy.
What is the background?
First, the immediate trigger for the protests. After a long conspicuous absence, Thailand's King Maha Vajiralongkorn returned from Germany to observe his late father's death anniversary. On October 13, the royal motorcade was obstructed by the protestors who shouted slogans and raised their three-finger salute. This expression of direct dissent towards the monarchy is quite unprecedented in a country where the monarchy is revered. This incident was cited by the government for declaration of emergency.
Second, the recent history of protests, starting from February 2020. It all started in February when the pro-democracy Future Forward Party (FFP) was declared illegal by a Thai constitutional court. Third largest in terms of parliamentary seat share, FFP was popular among the young people. Protests that followed disbandment of FFP soon met an end because of the spreading pandemic and the ensuing lockdowns. In June, a prominent pro-democracy activist went missing; protestors allege that the State had a role in it. This led to the resumption of the protests and has now continued for more than three months.
Third, the expanding list of demands by the protestors. In its earlier iteration in February, the immediate concern of the protestors was FFPs dissolution. In its recent iteration, the protestors have expanded their demands. Some key demands include the stepping down of the Prime Minister Prayut (a former army general who came to power after 2014 coup); limiting the power of the monarchy and bringing it within constitutional limits; a new constitution replacing the existing one drafted by the military; and to reduce the role of the military in politics and check its power.
Fourth, the demography and the geography of the protests. Although protests have happened across Thailand, the epicentre has been Bangkok. In terms of participation, there has been a cross-section of Thai society; but is led by the youth, mostly students. This cross-sectional participation has also contributed to the expansion of demands. For example, women, who have come out in large numbers, have brought the issues of patriarchy and gender inequality to the fore.
What does this mean?
The protests are treading on a dangerous path. There have been instances of violence by the state and military in the past. So far, notwithstanding the arrests and detention of prominent protest leaders, the administration and the police have been accommodative and allowed an element of dissent. However, with the protests intensifying, the administration has calibrated its response by declaring a state of emergency.
If the protesters continue to defy prohibitory orders, or if the scale of protests assumes unmanageable proportions, the State might employ police or the military to disperse them using violent means. It would change the nature of protests and also the State response.