Student Union of Thailand spokesperson Panusaya 'Rung' Sithijirawattanakul speaks from a truck as pro-democracy protesters march towards Government House during an anti-government rally in Bangkok on Oct. 14. (Photo: AFP)
The scenes that unfolded on the streets of Bangkok near the city’s Democracy Monument on Oct. 14 recalled those of years past when the same area turned into a battleground between rival groups of protesters.
In full view of journalists, groups of hardline royalists armed themselves with sticks and other objects and attacked several young pro-democracy demonstrators during a mass protest against the military-allied government of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha.
You could be forgiven for thinking of the violent street protests of a decade ago. Then as now, roving bands of men dressed in the royal color of yellow goaded peaceful demonstrators before they set upon pro-democracy protesters, kicking and beating them in several incidents recorded on mobile phones and posted on social media.
Observers said these recent attacks on protesters were perpetrated by agitators who meant to provoke a confrontation so that the authorities could then “restore order” by initiating a crackdown on the thousands of students and other young demonstrators who were marching to Government House to reiterate their demands for political reforms.
The military used the same justification in 2014 to oust a democratically elected government by staging a coup with Prayut at the helm.
“The only violence today has been provoked and perpetrated by the Thai regime, who brought thousands of police disguised as royalist supporters from southern Thailand and even used garbage trucks to transport paid protesters wearing yellow shirts into Bangkok,” Andrew MacGregor Marshall, a prominent British commentator on Thai politics, argued in a widely shared Facebook post.
“They want to create a narrative that there is conflict between two sides and so the regime has to crack down to restore peace. This is not true. The protesters who want reform of the monarchy and constitution have remained peaceful despite intense provocation.”
In recent months, youth-led anti-government demonstrators have been gathering momentum with young activists, many of whom are university students, demanding that former army chief Prayut step down.
The young protesters have also broken an age-old taboo by demanding limits on the political and financial influence of the Thai royal family. These demands have angered hardline royalists who regard the monarchy as a sacrosanct institution and consider all members of the royal family to be above reproach.
In a scene that several observers have deemed historic, numerous young protesters lining a road flashed their pro-democracy movement’s three-fingered salute at a passing royal motorcade that forced its way through protesters as some members of the royal family traveling in a limousine were making their way to Bangkok’s Grand Palace to attend a Buddhist ceremony with a heavy police presence.
“Now the royals are meeting protesters face to face,” one commenter noted on social media.
“They should now realize the grim reality that there are many people who seriously want reform of the monarchy and not everyone is chanting ‘Long live the king’ in front of them anymore.”
Such open acts of defiance to royalty are practically unheard of in Thailand, where commoners are expected to prostrate themselves in the presence of all members of the royal family.
Several royalists who came out to express support for the monarchy on Oct. 14 decried the pro-democracy protesters.
“The monarchy has never hurt the people. They’ve helped people since ancient eras,” Naret Wattakanon, who wore a yellow vest with the words “We Love the King Group,” told a local newspaper, referring to the country’s official narrative that for hundreds of years Thai monarchs have always acted in the interest of their subjects.
“Thailand is different from other countries in that we have had [the] monarchy since ancient times. We can’t change it,” the man stressed.
However, young protesters have been challenging this long-held official view by pointing at the wealth of King Vajiralongkorn, which has been estimated to be somewhere between US$40 billion and $70 billion, and noting that the king reportedly spends most of his time in Germany.
“We need to reform our political system for Thailand to become a modern nation,” Suvichai, a university student who participated in yesterday’s mass protest, told a UCA News reporter. “We can’t live in the past forever.”
Yet past habits by those in power seem to die hard. Early on Oct. 15, phalanxes of police officers surrounded and then dispersed the hundreds of young demonstrators who had stayed overnight outside parliament to continue to demand Prayut’s resignation.
Police also detained some 20 leaders of the pro-democracy movement on grounds that they had violated an emergency decree that prohibits large gatherings, ostensibly so as to check the spread of Covid-19.
Yet despite such heavy-handed tactics, student leaders, most of whom are already facing various charges such as sedition, have pledged to carry on with their protests.
Nothing short of thorough political reforms that guarantee democratic rights to all Thais will suffice, they have stressed.