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Why Thailand’s Protesters Want to Change the Monarchy

Updated on October 22, 1:08 AM EDT

What You Need To Know

Thailand's pro-democracy protests began gathering momentum early last year after a court ordered an opposition party to disband. The demonstrations were initially fueled by anger around the constitution that the junta drafted ahead of the elections in 2019 that all but guaranteed that the military-backed regime of coup leader Prayuth Chan-Ocha would retain control. In the year since then, the protests evolved to break taboos around public criticism of the royal family, in a country where such acts can result in jail terms.

There are other demands too: Some groups want the charter rewritten, along with the election laws, to make them more democratic and reduce the military’s role. They also want the government to resign afterward and hold a new vote. And they have demanded an end to harassment of government critics such as the now-banned Future Forward Party.

The government, already grappling with a pandemic-induced economic crisis, initially struggled to quell the protests which brought tens of thousands out onto the streets. But this year authorities have ramped up the use of the so-called lèse-majesté law against royal insults, which can result in a sentence of up to 15 years in prison. With most of the leading figures of the leader-less protest movement now languishing in jail or battling sedition charges, the protests have lost momentum. These days they usually attract just a few hundred people.

By The Numbers

  • 15 Maximum number of years in prison for showing disrespect to the monarchy
  • 70+ The number of protesters during recent demonstrations
  • 20 Number of constitutions since absolute monarchy was abolished in 1932

Why It Matters

The Southeast Asian nation has seen protests before, but the grassroots nature of these demonstrations is unusual. Over the past few decades, a crackdown or coup would eventually bring an end to street protests and life would mostly go back to normal until the next round of demonstrations. This time though, things seem different.

Even though numbers have waned under government pressure, the protests have persisted. For the government, the demonstrations come as it struggles to rescue a pandemic-hit economy that is heavily dependent on tourism and trade and can ill afford political instability. More importantly, the student-led protest movement doesn’t want power for itself — it wants to fundamentally change the political system and the monarchy, the lynchpin that holds the present system in place.

The protesters are unlikely to succeed with their demands. The government has shown no signs of making any compromises on resignations or monarchy reform, while the charter amendment process has faced several delays and the rewriting is unlikely to lead to any real changes. For now, the diminished demonstrations go on.

    The economy was sluggish even before the pandemic and won’t withstand a long period of unrest in the streets.

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