Protest leader, Tattep Ruangprapaikitseree, denies a suggestion by the army chief that there are forces behind the student protests in Thailand. He accused General Apirat Komsompong of ‘belittling’ those involved. However, he has expressed his concerns that young people engaged in protests could be placing themselves in dangerous legal waters by referencing the Thai monarchy, even in jest, during rallies against the government.
Over the weekend, as protest activity continued to simmer throughout Thailand, the Commander-in-Chief of the Royal Thai Army called for restraint in the exercise of free speech which he warned could sow division. He decried some protest activity which attempted to draw the monarchy into controversy, a situation he suggested that would make many Thai people uncomfortable. He also warned that those involved have a duty not to let history repeat itself. General Apirat instead called for unity as Thailand faces the stiff challenge of the Covid 19 emergency which can only be overcome through unity.
Protests continued over the weekend, organised by student groups, that drew small gatherings across the country under the slogan ‘end it in your generation’.
A striking protest last Saturday, organised by a group called Free Youth, drew a large crowd of 2,500 in Bangkok and heard calls from student leaders for the dissolution of the House of Representatives, the rewriting of the 2017 Constitution and an end to what was termed official or legal harassment of opposition activists.
This week, that rally and others in the provinces, led to a House of Representatives resolution passed by 260 votes to 178, to set up a committee to listen to the protestor’s demands.
Resistance to protestor’s dialogue came from opposition parties in the House of Representatives
Surprisingly, opposition to the move came within parliament from the progressive Move Forward Party and other opposition members who saw the move as a ruse to sidestep the movement’s demands which were aimed squarely at the Prime Minister, Prayut Chan ocha.
Redshirt leader Jatuporn Prompan urges students not to bring the monarchy into the debate
Experts and even former street protest leaders during the week did not hold out much hope that the movement would make progress with their agenda.
Jatuporn Prompan, the Chairman of the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), warned the movement’s leaders to avoid bringing the monarchy into the fray.
Indirect references to the Thai monarchy, a revered institution in the kingdom which by tradition and necessity stands above politics, have already drawn ultra-conservative forces into the discussion opened up by last week’s protests.
Counter-protest on Friday involving conservatives and ultra royalists at the Thai Army headquarters
A protest was organised on Tuesday outside the Royal Thai Army headquarters led by protest leader Parit Chiwarak, known humorously by foes and friend alike as ‘the Penguin’.
A rival group turned up, three days later on Friday, to call for the protest leaders nationwide to be investigated by authorities for some of their statements and placards seen at recent events.
The counter-protest, also outside the Thai Army headquarters, was led by Sathit Segal, a Thai Indian businessman who is an ardent royalist.
Thai Indian businessman calls for investigation
Mr Sathit was joined by other supporters wearing yellow shirts to voice their support for the monarchy and present demands for an investigation into the string of student protests and comments made from various stages as well as protest signs and placards seen at student rallies over the previous week.
Thailand’s strict Lèse majesté law, under Section 112 of the Criminal Code from 1908, allows for up to 15 years imprisonment for each individual count of even the slightest statement or action which calls the institution of the monarchy and any associated individuals into question.
In recent weeks, however, Prime Minister Prayut Chan ocha has indicated that the government, in the last few years, has desisted from using the draconian legal measure to prosecute offenders.
He revealed that this was following the express wish of Thailand’s monarch, King Maha Vajiralongkorn.
Computer Crime Act can lead to stiff jail terms and consequences for those stirring unrest online
However, this does not preclude authorities prosecuting offenders under Thailand’s wide-ranging Computer Crime Act which can also see stiff terms of imprisonment and fines handed down by the courts for anything published online which may be considered false, distorted or an attempt to incite public unrest or panic.
On Wednesday, Mr Sathit expressed concern that the right to freedom of expression and protest being exercised by students in the last week may be in danger of being abused.
He said he feared that the monarchy may be dragged into controversy and the institution offended.
Letter calling for the conduct of the protests to be reviewed as being disrespectful to the monarchy
The group who gathered in support of the monarchy on Friday submitted a letter addressed to the Commander-in-Chief of the Royal Thai Army, General Apirat Komsompong.
They wanted the activities of the protestors and their behaviour investigated which they indicated fell short of respect for Thailand’s highest institution.
In Chiang Mai, this week, the PM said that Thailand’s three pillars were the nation, its religion and the monarchy. None, he said, should be undermined.
Army leader on Friday said the student protests were unlike those of 1976 but still urged restraint
On Friday, in a sometimes emotional interview with the press, as he oversaw celebrations for the King’s birthday on July 28th, General Apirat gave further reaction to the week’s events.
The army leader, known for his staunchly conservative stance in defence of Thai tradition, the army itself and the monarchy had an oblique warning for the protestors.
While he said that he thought the situation was not like that of October 1976 which led to student bloodshed on one of the darkest incidents in Thailand’s troubled past, he did indicate that he suspected the students may be being used by unknown forces.
He said that those involved in the protests should refrain from using offensive language which may create division and make others in the kingdom feel uncomfortable.
He observed that everyone in Thailand, no matter what their nationality, religion or status, lived under the monarch’s protection.
Army monitoring the situation closely, General Apirat says history must not repeat itself
He said that the army was only deployed, at this time, to protect anyone involved in such protests and also to monitor the situation closely.
He said that the government was currently engaged in dealing with an unprecedented crisis and called for unity in overcoming the real challenge before the country.
He indicated that it would be a mistake to let history repeat itself. ‘The current situation should not repeat the political events of the past,’ he said.
Protest leader rebukes the army chief’s comments
General Apirat’s comments drew a hostile response from the Secretary-General of Free Youth, Tattep Ruangprapaikitseree.
Mr Tattep was to the fore in last Saturday’s breakthrough protest and expresses himself confidently.
He insisted that the students who are protesting are not being manipulated by unknown forces.
‘He’s belittling citizens’ voices,’ the protest leader exclaimed in response.
Protest leader expresses concern for those exercising their free speech rights even with humour
However, Mr Tattep has expressed his concern for protestors who, even in humorous ways, have been seen to draw the monarchy into the conversation.
After the protest in Bangkok last week, he admitted that such a course may have dire repercussions for some of those involved but instead called for more freedom of expression.
‘We’re worried about their safety,’ he explained. ‘We’re not in a position to decide which message is appropriate. The protesters have to bear the consequences, but this shows that society still needs a space to express opinions on sensitive issues.’