The insistence by key student protest leaders in pursuing their August 10th ‘manifesto’ for reform of the monarchy has deeply disturbed authorities. There are genuine fears that next weekend’s protest could turn sour even as the Prime Minister, Prayut Chan ocha, has vowed to ensure the safety of protestors who have declared their intention to march on Government House.
Fear is growing over the defiant nature of a planned student protest scheduled for next weekend which may see up to 100,000 protestors march on Government House in Bangkok and at which student leaders have insisted they will still call for extensive reform of Thailand’s monarchy. The Thai Prime Minister, on Monday, moved to assure the public that government agencies will be deployed to protect protestors while ensuring that security and order are maintained.
The Prime Minister, on Monday, made it clear that authorities would be doing everything possible to avoid conflict or the potential for conflict as fears grow over a major anti-government rally planned to commence on Saturday, September 19th.
Last week, student leaders revealed plans for a student protest which is planned to camp overnight at Thammasat University before moving on the next day to march on Government House.
Protest leaders have said that if the crowd is large enough, it may occupy an area known as Sanam Luang adjacent to the Grand Palace.
General Prayut, on Monday, while questioning the wisdom of marching on the seat of government, indicated that all state agencies have been instructed by him to assist in maintaining order and protecting demonstrators next Saturday and Sunday.
He said he was determined to make sure that a third force does not exploit the circumstances caused by the protest rally to create mischief.
‘Penguin’ vows to reiterate student demands for reform of the monarchy at the planned rally
Last Wednesday, as he announced details of the rally along with a number of other protest leaders, Parit Chiwarak, also known as the ‘Penguin’ vowed that the rally would again see calls from the podium for reform of Thailand’s monarchy, an escalation of the anti-government protest movement that since August 10th is believed to have alarmed senior figures within the government.
‘We will certainly talk about the reform of the monarchy on stage on the 19th,’ Mr Parit proclaimed.
August 10th rally at Thammasat led to demands for dilution and reform of the monarch’s powers
On August 10th, a group of students at another protest held at Thammasat University led by Ms Panusaya Sithijirawattankul of the United Front of Thammasat and Demonstration, read out a 10 point programme or ‘manifesto’ calling for reform of the Thai monarchy.
The move shocked officials at the university with a strong tradition of anti-government protests who had approved the rally but who later claimed they were not told of this aspect of the student’s demands.
Among the changes called for was a dilution of the monarch’s powers, the transfer of control over the vast royal fortune and the removal of control over key military units placed under the Thai King’s personal authority.
Called for Article 112 to be scrapped
The student protest leaders also called for an end to Article 112 of Thailand’s criminal code which can see those convicted of even questioning royal authority being sentenced to 15 years in prison.
This has, in the past, included people convicted in inadvertent circumstances such is the draconian nature and scope of the law.
The students are also calling for an end to what they term the ‘legal’ harassment of government critics, the removal of the government ministry, the dissolution of parliament and a new or revised constitution.
Prime Minister has warned of Thailand being ‘engulfed in flames’ if students persist on their path
The Prime Minister, Prayut Chan ocha, in the days after the August 10th protest refuted the calls by the students relating to the monarchy and said that they had crossed a line in their action.
Since then, key leaders associated with that protest have been arrested and charged with sedition and other offences including Ms Panusaya who is a key leader of the rally planned for the 19th. She is currently on bail.
The Prime Minister has appeared visibly upset by the radical turn in the student protests and has cautioned that if they continue, Thailand will be ‘engulfed in flames’.
Six arrested after Thammasat ‘manifesto’
On August 20th, the Royal Thai Police obtained arrest warrants for six activists linked with the controversial Thammasat August 10th protest including Ms Panusaya on a range of charges including offences such as sedition as well as breaches of the Computer Crime Act and failure to observe legal measures in relation to the Covid 19 virus outbreak.
Last week, three key protest leaders Mr Parit, Ms Panusaya and Panupong Jadnok, a firebrand leader from Rayong who has already been arrested three times, outlined plans for next Saturday’s protest.
Mr Parit said that he expected anywhere from 50,000 to 100,000 people to attend the rally.
Provincial Governors call for meetings with university heads and management to discuss protests
Tensions over next weekend’s protests were also heightened by reports that official letters have been issued by provincial governors nationwide to university administrators and leaders seeking urgent meetings in relation to any planned protest activity.
It is thought that the main protest in Bangkok will be accompanied by smaller demonstrations throughout the country.
Senator expressed deep concern about student leader’s insistence on involving the monarchy
The content of the letters was later acknowledged by Senator Somchai Sawangkarn who underlined that authorities were particularly concerned about the intention to draw the monarchy into the protests next weekend.
He said that the letter to the universities called on them to make sure that discussion of the monarchy is not drawn into the political rhetoric and speeches of those taking part.
‘University administrators should create understanding with the students on this and should put a stop to the demands on the monarchy,’ Senator Somchai said.
‘We did not tell the governors to block the protests but we want them to create understanding with university officials, especially on the 10 demands for the monarchy,’ the senator told news agency Reuters.
The letters drew a rebuke from 21-year-old Ms Panyusa. ‘They are using this tactic to try to suppress and threaten people,’ she said.
Government looking to identify student ringleaders at each university says one source at meetings
One participant at a meeting between authorities and university officials suggested that authorities wanted the university to identify key student ring leaders of the movement.
It is also being reported that some officials told university management that they feared students were attempting to topple the monarchy.
A letter reviewed by Reuters to the institution read: ‘There are concerns about the behaviour of some groups taking part in the protest that is inappropriate, for example, those that want to topple the monarchy and those that demand voiding Article 112 of the criminal code.’
Ministry of Interior official plays down the significance of the letter to the universities and discussions as a routine security matter
The reports suggest that authorities are seeking a list of students involved in the protest activity from the universities, all of which are funded by the state.
A Ministry of Interior officer has suggested that the letters and communication between the universities and provincial governors are routine when such agitation breaks out.
The provincial administration in Thailand is overseen by the Thai Ministry of the Interior led by General Anupong Paochinda, one of the coup-makers of 2014 or ‘band of brothers’ and known as a conservative.
September 19th is also the anniversary of the 2006 coup when the Thai military removed the elected government of Thaksin Shinawatra that year during a period of intense street protests.
Fears of a repeat of 1976 and 1992
The fears generated over the protest are real and well-founded.
It is based on the bloodshed and violence seen in 1976 and 1992 when protests led by student leaders were confronted in Bangkok leading to mayhem.
Many ordinary Thais see any attempt to draw the monarchy into such a discussion or the debate as a slight not only on a revered institution but also on Thai tradition and culture.
Among them is the current army leader whose term expires in a matter of weeks.
Army chief last October vowed to resist efforts to sow division between the people and the monarchy
In October last year, the outgoing Commander and Chief of the Thai Army, General Apirat Kongsompong also known as ‘Big Daeng’ gave a passionate speech in which he warned that the Thai army, the monarchy and the people were inseparable.
During the speech, he vowed to resist any attempt to have the 2017 Constitution altered particularly concerning Article 1 of the charter. This followed a comment made last year by an academic, in the light of southern unrest, that Thailand may have to look to altering the clause which defines Thailand as ‘one indivisible kingdom’.
‘This article invoked the blood our ancestors had shed to keep this land. I can tell you I will never allow it, even to my dying day,’ General Apirat said.
Outgoing army chief last October condemned academics as well as ‘leftist’ thinking which was ‘communistic’ and divided society
He also indicated that such attempts to tamper with the constitution might also be aimed at the monarchy.
‘They are being shrewd, talking of amending the first article without stating directly what they want, knowing this will affect other articles about the monarchy,’ he said referring to the academic who suggested amending the constitution to facilitate peace talks in the south of the country with separatist elements.
General Apirat left his audience in no doubt of his stance in opposition to what he termed ‘hard left’ academics whose thinking he described as ‘communistic’.
The army leader warned that such thinking had already polarised political viewpoints in the United States and Europe.
General Apirat has also repeatedly urged students, since this agitation broke out in mid-July, to restrain the exercise of their free speech rights when it comes to the monarchy.