Outside one of Bangkok’s busy shopping arcades, crowds of young protesters bounce balloons, gray with patches of fading orange, above their heads.
“We will act like a meteor and hit the outdated ways of the older generations in this country,” explained the protest organizers. “We will talk about all the issues that dinosaurs don’t want to hear.” The inflatable dinosaurs staggered in the afternoon heat, representing the Thai government. The symbols are fun, but the message is clear: teens want change.
A student-led protest movement has rocked Thailand for the past five months. Young people have taken to the streets to call for true democracy and have risked jail time to break a taboo that has long prevented a frank public discussion of the monarchy. Their protests, which were attended by tens of thousands, present one of the most daring challenges the Thai royal family has faced in living memory.
The protesters say they are not calling for the abolition of the monarchy, but for reform, which is accountable to the people and not above the law. They have also called on Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, a former army general who came to power in a coup in 2014, to step down and amend the constitution to democratize the political system.
The movement has left few issues untouched. At Saturday’s rally, organized by Bad Student, a group representing school pupils, protesters called for not only reform of the monarchy and government, but also a reform of the education system.
Students want investment in schools and an end to military influence and the rigid hierarchies that continue to dominate classrooms, stifling free speech. Bad Students has highlighted abusive behavior by teachers, from the use of humiliating punishments such as cutting students’ hair if deemed inappropriate, to the continued use of corporal punishment, even though it is prohibited. The group has also campaigned for greater protection for female and LGBT students. Yesterday, a student, dressed in a school uniform and with her mouth taped shut, was holding a sign that read: “I have been sexually abused by teachers. School is not a safe place. “
“Authoritarianism not only manifests itself through election manipulation, it is exercised in everyday life,” said Janjira Sombatpoonsiri, assistant professor of political science at Thammasat University.
Students say they want space for freedom of thought and a curriculum that allows for different interpretations of Thailand’s past. “History always mentions the good side of Thailand: change history, frame others, admire someone in heaven,” said a speaker at yesterday’s rally, referring to the king.
The current curriculum glorifies the role of the royal family, but includes very little about the most sensitive episodes in Thai history, including the massacre of pro-democracy college students in the 1970s.
“The monarchy should be in the curriculum, but it should be the truth,” said a 15-year-old who, like all protesters, asked not to be named. His parents, he added, did not know that he had come to protest.
On her wrist, she wore a pink sash to show that she is under 18 years old. Amnesty International and other rights groups at the demonstration handed out orange and pink wristbands to indicate whether a protester was under 18 or 15 years old. remind authorities to protect the safety of young protesters.
On Tuesday, in a much larger demonstration organized by university students, water cannons containing chemical irritants were fired at protesters, as well as tear gas and pepper spray grenades. Despite the huge police presence, oppositional groups of realistic “yellow shirts” and pro-democracy students were allowed to clash with each other, leading to violent clashes. By the end of the night, six people had been shot and dozens had received treatment for other injuries.
The students accused the police of unfair treatment and failing to protect them. At a rally the next day, paint was thrown at the police headquarters.
There is a risk of new clashes between royalists and protesters, said Matthew Wheeler, a senior analyst at International Crisis Group, who fears such violence “could be a pretext for a coup to ‘restore order.’
“What comes after any future coup is also worrying. If it foreshadowed a severe crackdown on dissent, it could spark a broader conflict, “he added.
Prayuth said last week that “all laws, all articles” would be used to crack down on protesters, suggesting that charges could be brought under the harsh lese majesty law. So far, the authorities have not used the law, which carries a 15-year sentence for anyone who “defames, insults or threatens the king, queen, heir or regent.”
Other charges have been used extensively. So far, 175 people have been charged with sedition, which carries a maximum sentence of seven years, or crimes of public assembly. This includes two of the teen organizers behind Bad Students: Benjamaporn Nivas, 15, and Lopnaphat Wangsit, 17.
However, as authorities hint at further repression, protesters have vowed to intensify their demonstrations.
They are motivated not only by renewed anger at the police response, but also by Parliament’s recent decision to reject one of their key demands: changing the constitution to hold the monarchy accountable and for military-appointed senators to be replaced by elected officials.
Instead, the deputies and senators agreed to establish a committee to draft reforms. Even this will take months, and no changes will be made regarding the monarchy, an institution which, according to the current charter, must be “enthroned in a position of revered worship.”
“In the past, you at least pretended to listen to the protesters and there is a pseudo-round of negotiations,” Janjira said, adding that the authorities may be trying to pressure pro-democracy protesters to be aggressive in the streets to justify a crackdown. “We are reaching a very dangerous point,” he said.
At rallies, protesters hold up posters mocking recent comments by King Maha Vajiralongkorn, who, when asked about the protests, described Thailand as the “land of compromise.”
“How dare you lie about that? The system is not like that at all, ”said a 17-year-old. “They don’t listen to our voices. They didn’t listen to us because it doesn’t benefit them ”.
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