Conflict Alerts

Conflict Alerts # 195, 26 November 2020

Thailand: Protests continue, leaders charged with 'lese majeste' laws
Lokendra Sharma

In the news
On 25 November, pro-democracy protestors gathered in front of the SCB Park, the headquarters of Siam Commercial Bank. Demonstrations were originally planned at the Crown Property Bureau (CPB), which manages the monarchy's assets. The venue was moved to avoid a confrontation with the royalists' groups, similar to what happened on 17 November near parliament. The protests at SCB park were largely peaceful except some gunshots which were heard after the protest was called off for the day. One person was injured in the firing.  

On 24 November, 12 protest leaders, including Parit 'Penguin' Chiwarak were issued a summons for 'lese majeste' charges, according to the International Federation for Human Rights. Earlier, on 23 November, Prime Minister Prayut ruled out another coup or imposition of martial law to deal with the pro-democracy protests. On 25 November, he reiterated the same position.

Issues at large
First, the significance of protest sites. In 2017, the law was changed to place the management of the crown property under the direct supervision of the King. Before that, the crown (or monarchy's) property was separate from the King's personal assets. Reforming monarchy and bringing these assets back to the 'people' has been a major demand of the protestors. The selection of CPB came against this backdrop. Even the changed protest site, the Siam Commercial Bank, has the CPB as a major shareholder.

Second, the State response. Even as the State has been restrained in its response during the last four months of protests, there are signs that it is now hardening its stance. Pressing of 'lese majeste' charges (Section 112 of the Thai Criminal Code) against 12 protest leaders is a major development. Criticizing the monarchy is punishable under Section 112 and carries a sentence up to 15 years; it has not been used for the last two years. These charges come after PM Prayut said on 19 November that "all laws and all articles" will be used to tackle protests.

Third, the main demands and their addressal. Prayut's resignation, overhauling the constitution and reforming the monarchy has been the main demands of the protestors. Of them, only the demand for constitution change has been addressed in a limited form until now. On 18 November, government and opposition proposed charter amendment drafts were passed in their first reading by the parliament even as the iLaw draft, which enjoyed popular support, was rejected. The passed charter amendment drafts leave the monarchy untouched.

In perspective
The pro-democracy protests have continued now for more than four months. There have been some successes like normalizing the questioning of monarchy's functioning and role in a country where until recently it was considered a taboo. Protestors have also succeeded in pressurizing the parliament to consider charter reforms, even if the proposed amendments do not reform the monarchy.

However, with the State giving signals of hardening its stance by charging protest leaders with 'lese majeste' laws, it is to be seen what trajectory the protests will take. The clashes between pro-democracy and royalists supporters is also adding to the volatility of ongoing protests.

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