Report Contents

November 19, 2020

Asia

THAILAND: Headed for escalation

BY Bob Herrera-Lim

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( 4 mins)
  • Parliament is moving forward with constitutional reform, but without changes to the monarchy.
  • The political avenue for compromise has narrowed.
  • Frustrations on both sides increase the risk of conflict in the streets.

Political tensions have increased in the past few days and could manifest in more confrontations and possibly more serious violence between protesters and police in the streets over the coming weeks. The next major demonstration is scheduled for 25 November at the head office of the Crown Property Bureau, which manages the monarchy’s wealth.

The trigger for the latest escalation was the parliamentary vote on Tuesday, when legislators voted to form a committee that would study the proposed changes to the constitution, including possibly reducing the power of the unelected Senate. However, the proposal to include reform of the monarchy was excluded. To protesters gathered outside the parliament building, this seemed to only confirm their skepticism about the Thai elites’ willingness to consider their demands. As the Free People, one of the groups organizing the protests, said in a statement, “the new Constitution to be drawn up won’t reflect the will of the people because monarchy reform won’t be part of the discussion by the rewriting committee.”

Apparently worried that the increasingly agitated protesters would attempt to breach parliament’s walls, which were already secured with parked buses and barbed wire, security forces used teargas and water cannons against the demonstrators. The next day, the protesters gathered at police headquarters and threw paint at its walls.

For the government, the protesters’ reactions to parliament’s actions may have also confirmed its sense that the monarchy has become — or may have always been — the real target of the protest movement. There is no shortage of conspiracy theories within the Thai establishment about other forces they believe to be behind the anti-government movement, whether Western governments or politicians such as former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit.

Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha signaled a shift in policy Thursday. Showing frustration, he said “this situation has not shown signs of deescalating, even though the government has been straightforward and earnest in trying to find a solution.” The government would therefore “intensify its actions and use all laws“ against the protesters. It is likely that Prayuth’s reassesment is based not only on protesters possibly becoming more aggressive, but the increasingly direct challenge that they are focusing on the monarchy — which for the royalists and their network is a very slippery slope. Whether his warning refers to the broader enforcement of broad laws on public order after protesters defaced the walls of police headquarters or a veiled threat to more forcefully implement the country’s strict lese majeste laws due to the direct challenge against the monarchy remains to be seen.

So far, the government has avoided a large-scale crackdown, recognizing how injured protesters could become a public relations nightmare, especially since the youth compose the bulk of the movement, including high school students. It has instead focused on the arrest of protest leaders and the filing of numerous cases against them — although this seems to have hardly deterred its most visible figures. Most of the time it has allowed protesters to gather unimpeded and offered only token resistance to their marches. Prior to Tuesday’s confrontation, the last time anti-riot police attempted a major dispersal was on 16 October, when demonstrators threatened to stay for several days in the central commercial district. Police have openly stated that they believe that the movement has neither the capacity nor the willingness to stay on the streets in large numbers for several days or weeks, as the Red Shirts did a decade ago — which has led to their belief that the movement could lose steam over time.

With both sides now likely believing more strongly that the avenues for a political situation are narrowing, the willingness of the protesters to increase their provocations and the government to respond more forcefully are growing. So far, the government has also focused on levying sedition charges against the protesters but may shift to the more stringent lese majeste law. Should this happen and the level of violence increase on the streets, and possibly even broaden, then the speculation — maybe premature for now but never outside of conversations in Bangkok — is of a possible military takeover again.