Protests Grow in Thailand, Where Speaking Out Can Be Perilous
Protests Grow in Thailand, Where Speaking Out Can Be Perilous
BANGKOK — They gathered at a monument celebrating Thai democracy. They raised their hands in defiance below a giant image of the king dressed in coronation regalia.
At least 10,000 protesters, many first-time participants in political rallies, gathered in Bangkok on Sunday, demanding change in a country where military tanks have tended to shape politics more than the ballot box has.
The nearly eight-hour protest, which filled a broad avenue in the heart of the city with black-clad people, was the largest rally in Thailand since a coup in 2014, one of a dozen successful putsches in the country in the last nine decades.
A state of emergency instituted because of the coronavirus made the demonstration technically illegal, and every participant could have been arrested simply for showing up. The police stood by, however, some idling behind a Mercedes-Benz showroom.
Thailand’s growing protest movement, which was set off by student activism last month, has since gained broader support.
While Thailand has escaped the brunt of the pandemic, it has been pummeled economically, and millions are out of work. With Prayuth Chan-ocha, the retired general who choreographed the last coup, still leading the country as prime minister, Thais have intensified calls for a new political order.
“We have had many political divisions in our country but now, no matter what our backgrounds, many of us are united in questioning the legitimacy of this government,” said Nuttaa Mahattana, a democracy activist. “Look at who’s here, many different types of people.”
The protest leaders have demanded a new constitution, one not written by the military, as the current charter was. They have called for Parliament to dissolve. They are pleading for the protection of human rights at a time when vocal critics of the military and monarchy have disappeared and been killed. And they say they will keep gathering if their aims are not met.
“We don’t hate the country, but we hate you, Prayuth Chan-ocha,” Benjamaporn Nivas, a 15-year-old student, sang from the stage she shared with others, taking the melody of a children’s song and adding new lyrics. “We don’t want dictatorship.”
Sunday’s protest took place at the Democracy Monument, which was built to commemorate the 1932 bloodless revolution that ended absolute monarchy in Thailand. The country is now a constitutional monarchy, but some of the protest leaders have accused the palace of breaching the terms of that form of government.
King Maha Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun spends little time in Thailand, living most of the year in Europe. He has consolidated financial and military power, bringing crown coffers and influential army units under his control.
After some protesters called for checks on the palace’s power in rallies last week, a rare challenge in a country where lèse-majesté laws can land critics of the crown in jail for up to 15 years, the authorities pressured the movement’s leaders to keep the monarchy out of their speeches.
But as Sunday’s rally stretched into the night, after speeches on labor law, student haircuts and rights for gay, lesbian and transgender people, Arnon Nampa, a young human rights lawyer, took to the stage and defied any such request. Earlier, a laser had projected a hashtag that asked in Thai, “why do we need a king?” onto the white face of the Democracy Monument.
The authorities “have asked us to stop dreaming,” he said, referring to “the biggest dream of seeing the monarchy stay alongside Thai society,” rather than floating above it unbound by legal charters.
“I am announcing here,” he added, “that we will continue dreaming.”
The demonstration took place under a large photograph of the king during his 2019 coronation, when he was formally presented with a 16-pound golden crown and a fortune that makes him one of the world’s richest royals.
The Coronavirus Outbreak ›
Frequently Asked Questions
Updated August 12, 2020
Can I travel within the United States?
- Many states have travel restrictions, and lots of them are taking active measures to enforce those restrictions, like issuing fines or asking visitors to quarantine for 14 days. Here’s an ever-updating list of statewide restrictions. In general, travel does increase your chance of getting and spreading the virus, as you are bound to encounter more people than if you remained at your house in your own “pod.” “Staying home is the best way to protect yourself and others from Covid-19,” the C.D.C. says. If you do travel, though, take precautions. If you can, drive. If you have to fly, be careful about picking your airline. But know that airlines are taking real steps to keep planes clean and limit your risk.
I have antibodies. Am I now immune?
- As of right now, that seems likely, for at least several months. There have been frightening accounts of people suffering what seems to be a second bout of Covid-19. But experts say these patients may have a drawn-out course of infection, with the virus taking a slow toll weeks to months after initial exposure. People infected with the coronavirus typically produce immune molecules called antibodies, which are protective proteins made in response to an infection. These antibodies may last in the body only two to three months, which may seem worrisome, but that’s perfectly normal after an acute infection subsides, said Dr. Michael Mina, an immunologist at Harvard University. It may be possible to get the coronavirus again, but it’s highly unlikely that it would be possible in a short window of time from initial infection or make people sicker the second time.
I’m a small-business owner. Can I get relief?
- The stimulus bills enacted in March offer help for the millions of American small businesses. Those eligible for aid are businesses and nonprofit organizations with fewer than 500 workers, including sole proprietorships, independent contractors and freelancers. Some larger companies in some industries are also eligible. The help being offered, which is being managed by the Small Business Administration, includes the Paycheck Protection Program and the Economic Injury Disaster Loan program. But lots of folks have not yet seen payouts. Even those who have received help are confused: The rules are draconian, and some are stuck sitting on money they don’t know how to use. Many small-business owners are getting less than they expected or not hearing anything at all.
What are my rights if I am worried about going back to work?
What is school going to look like in September?
- It is unlikely that many schools will return to a normal schedule this fall, requiring the grind of online learning, makeshift child care and stunted workdays to continue. California’s two largest public school districts — Los Angeles and San Diego — said on July 13, that instruction will be remote-only in the fall, citing concerns that surging coronavirus infections in their areas pose too dire a risk for students and teachers. Together, the two districts enroll some 825,000 students. They are the largest in the country so far to abandon plans for even a partial physical return to classrooms when they reopen in August. For other districts, the solution won’t be an all-or-nothing approach. Many systems, including the nation’s largest, New York City, are devising hybrid plans that involve spending some days in classrooms and other days online. There’s no national policy on this yet, so check with your municipal school system regularly to see what is happening in your community.
Above the orderly rows of protesters was also an oversize picture of Queen Suthida Vajiralongkorn Na Ayudhya, the king’s fourth wife, in a military uniform. A former flight attendant, she has been given the military rank of general in the king’s bodyguard corps.
A pro-royalist counterprotest gathered on Sunday as well. Its numbers were small.
Even before the protest kicked off, the Thai security apparatus had begun harassing those who might want to speak out. Mr. Arnon was arrested on sedition charges last week. He and another activist are also facing lèse-majesté complaints.
Early on Sunday morning, Pongsak Phusitsakul, an opposition politician whose party was dissolved before it was able to contest elections last year, said his dogs alerted him to six plainclothes police officers who went to his home, he said, to intimidate him ahead of the rally.
“I’m used to it,” he said. “But I’m worried about the youth, what they will face and what their parents and families have to face.”
Previous Thai protests have been crushed with force, with dozens killed in downtown Bangkok, students included.
Even though many of the protesters on Sunday were posting selfies on Instagram and Facebook — at least when the internet hadn’t slowed to a crawl — few of the first-time participants wanted to give their names.
A 17-year-old high school student stood at the rally holding a small, handmade sign that said “Dictatorship shall perish! Long live democracy.” She posed willingly for a picture but balked at identifying herself.
She had told her parents she was going to the movies. Somehow, she said, she had ended up at the protest instead.
Muktita Suhartono contributed reporting.