Tensions have been escalating in Thailand as antigovernment demonstrations, mainly by university students, spread. Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha must take seriously the outburst of discontent with his authoritarian politics.
The number of demonstrators around the Grand Palace in Bangkok reached the 50,000 level last weekend. It was the biggest protest since Prayuth, who was the Thai Army chief, led a military coup in 2014 and became the interim prime minister.
Thailand has remained under strong military influence since it returned to civilian rule after a general election in March last year.
As the new Constitution established under military rule has created a system in which the candidate supported by the military is easily elected as prime minister, Prayuth has remained prime minister even after the general election. Opposition parties, which advocate anti-military rule, were ordered to dissolve in February this year.
The problem is that Prayuth has been tightening the grip on antigovernment forces in the name of preventing the spread of the novel coronavirus. Despite the small number of new infections, a state of emergency declared in March this year has been extended five times and still continues now.
Under the emergency declaration, authority is concentrated on the prime minister, which enables him to ban assemblies and control free speech in a top-down manner. Many people involved in antigovernment activities have been prosecuted or warned.
In a democratic country, restrictions on people’s rights as a measure against an infectious disease should be kept to a minimum. Furthermore, political exploitation of these restrictions is absolutely unacceptable.
Demands by young people and others who are leading the demonstrations include the resignation of Prayuth as prime minister, the revision of the Constitution, the dissolution of the parliament and a general election, among others, some of which step into royal reforms as well. Their call for royal reforms is a new move, one not seen before.
Although Thailand’s Constitution holds the king inviolable, young people and others have called for an abolition of its “lese majesty” law that prohibits criticism of the royal family. They also call for a contraction of the royal family’s authority. It is said that King Maha Vajiralongkorn, who ascended the throne in 2016, has spent much of his time abroad and a large amount of money is spent on him.
Because of the coronavirus disaster, Thailand’s economic growth rate has contracted to an extent comparable to that seen in the 1998 Asian currency crisis.
The fact that the taboo against criticism of the royal family is being broken may be a reflection of the declining prestige of the royal family or the strong sense of stagnation among young people.
There is fear that the division between supporters and reformists of the royal family would intensify, possibly leading to their clashes. In Thailand, unrest and coups have been repeated. The recurrence must be prevented.
Turmoil in Thailand, the core of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, could adversely affect regional affairs. A large number of Japanese companies are also operating in the country. The Japanese government needs to persistently urge Thailand to avoid confusion.
— The original Japanese article appeared in The Yomiuri Shimbun on Sept. 25, 2020.