Young protesters in Thailand risk seeking change from military, monarchy

It is enough to make most high school children worry non-stop on the streets, demanding reforms in an autocratic regime.

But in Thailand, thousands of students – some 10 years younger – have been doing this for the past four months.

They have joined forces with college students and longtime democracy campaigners, calling for a change in a country by a ruler loyal to the monarchy, in which the constitution has been drafted in the wake of a military coup.

Demonstrations are continuing in Bangkok, where police have used water canons and tear gas to disperse protesters, as the country’s parliament discussed ways to change the constitution, but in ways that led to meaningful democratic reform To reduce the demands of protesters.

Pro-democracy protesters took a three-fingered salute during a rally in Bangkok.Lauren DeCicca / Getty Images

Sporting a three-finger salute borrowed from “The Hunger Games” and wearing white ribbons – a symbol of their resistance – many students join protests that are still dressed in their school uniforms.

They were originally inspired by a plan to strictly change traditional Thai school culture – a common clue in protests: “Our first dictatorship is the school.”

Thai lawyers from the human rights group said this week that four protesters under the age of 18 were arrested for stalking, as the government declared a state of emergency on 15 October.

Akkarasorn Opilon, known as Ang-Aang, 16, said that her interest in politics began “some time ago”, but this year became more intense when she joined her first protests in August .

“I went with my friends and my mother,” she said. “My mother is not usually involved in protests, but she [sometimes] Joins me for security reasons. “

She makes her aware of the three demands that the movement is making: the resignation of Prime Minister Prathuth Chan-ogha and her cabinet, the re-creation of the constitution and the strict demarcation of the power of the monarchy.

Prathuth, a retired general of the military who was in power in the 2014 coup, amended the constitution in 2017 to ensure continued domination of the monarchy and the military, which appoints all 250 members of the Senate.

Thai King Maha Vajiralongkorn and Queen Suthida boarded a train during the opening of a subway station in Bangkok on 14 November.Royal Household Bureau / Reuters

“This is important to me and the future of this country is for us for Thailand,” Aung-ang said. “Parliament, cabinet and government can now be in power, but the country needs a younger generation for the future of the country.

He said, “Our voice should be the voice that matters. We are the voice of the future generation of Thailand.”

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Sunni Fasuke, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch in Bangkok, said the recent protests were organic and spontaneous.

He said, “These people are very young. They appear in their school uniforms – they are children. They are not associated with any party or official movement.”

According to Human Rights Watch, children under 10 participated in the protests. Most wear masks – not only against Kovid-19, but also against harassment.

“We have documents threatened by police and security forces – they went to high schools in search of students participating in pro-democracy activities,” Sunai said.

“It appears that they had the cooperation of the schools – schools are collaborating with the authorities to put more pressure on these students,” he said.

Pro-democracy protesters participate in a rally in Bangkok on 14 November. Older, more conservative Thais was surprised when Raja was nominated to rally on stage by lawyer and activist Anon Nampa. Lillian Suwanrampha / AFP – Getty Images

Two groups of high school students submitted a complaint to the Ministry of Education on 24 August accusing them of harassing 109 schools participating in anti-democracy demonstrations.

Lawyers acting for the students said they registered 103 cases of harassment after a major rally 16 in three days.

The UN children’s agency UNICEF said in August that children could be harmed during protests.

University students have also played a key role in the protests.

21-year-old Panisa Khunefet, a fourth-year student in communication arts at the University of Cholongkorn in Bangkok, originally from Chiang Rai province in the north, said she was opposed to “living a better life”.

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“The highest dream is to change society and change the social structure. I want to see my country grow before I die,” she said.

Her parents asked her not to post on social media about the monarchy for fear of retaliation from the authorities. Defamation law prohibits any Thai from criticizing or insulting the monarchy.

Try to be ‘dangerous’

The older, more conservative Thais suffered a setback when Raja was nominated at a stage rally by lawyer and activist Anon Nampa. He and eight others were arrested, and charges are pending.

Before he was arrested, Nampa told NBC News, “I’m dangerous for the dictatorship’s existence. I’m trying to be a dangerous person. It’s not something I can compromise on. It’s political There is a fight for change. “

There was an election last year, but it was a hollow exercise for democracy activists, confirming the power of the former military junta that derives its legitimacy from the monarchy.

“It is a long story, but this student-led movement is the culmination of Thailand’s struggle in the 21st century,” said Thitinan Pongsudihirak, a political scientist at the University of Chaulongkorn.

The 2014 coup was seen as a reaction to the success of Thaksin Shinawatra, a political leader whose party won four elections, placing him at odds with the country’s traditional power base.

In February support for the objectives of the student-led movement was put forward due to the disqualification of the anti-Future Forward Party.

“By kicking Future Forward out of the system, the Thai elite was saying, ‘People like you have no place in this society, and you have no right to be involved in what is going on politically,'” Duncan McCargo, a professor of political said co-author of a new book about science and the future forward at the University of Copenhagen.

“Even by people who didn’t particularly support or like Future Forward – it was a big thing,” McCargo said.

Traditionally, Thailand’s patriarchal leadership ruled through moral authority by Bhumibol Adulyadej, the country’s eminent emperor, also known as Rama IX, who ruled from 1946 until his death in 2016.

Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej sits with his family in December 2012 in a ceremony at the Anant Samkhom Throne Hall in Bangkok on the occasion of his 85th birthday. Thousands queued in the streets to pay homage. Bhumibol died in 2016.Royal Household Bureau via EPA File

In 2011, Forbes magazine estimated his personal fortune to be at least $ 30 billion, making him comfortably the world’s richest emperor at the time.

His successor and successor, Maha Vajirlongkorn, also known as Rama X, transferred that wealth himself in 2018. The king, a less venerable man than his father, spends much of his time in Germany and remains controversial for his relationships and for controversies. Undecided Senior Military Appointments. A miniature puddle, Fufu was promoted to head chief marshal of the Royal Thai Air Force.

The protest movement is not universally popular.

Political scientist Thitinan said, “This demand is very shocking for the Thai people.” “They grew up under the heavenly king. The current king is very different, and people are slowly getting round, slowly beginning to grapple with these demands.

“But it is a long, arduous, difficult task to reform the monarchy. Will the emperor allow himself to improve?”

Patrick Smith reported from London; Nat Suman reported from Bangkok.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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