Hundreds protest royal defamation laws in Thailand

Published March 7, 2021
Anti-government protesters march to the criminal court during a protest in Bangkok, Thailand on Saturday. — AP
Anti-government protesters march to the criminal court during a protest in Bangkok, Thailand on Saturday. — AP

BANGKOK: Demonstrators from Thailand’s student-led pro-democracy movement held a peaceful protest on Saturday outside Bangkok’s Criminal Court to bring public attention to the plight of several of their detained leaders.

The movement, a coalition of several groups, was launched last year with demands for Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha and his government to step down, the constitution to be amended to make it more democratic and the monarchy to be reformed to make it more accountable.

There were several protest marches, but the main one was held by a new faction of the student-led anti-government movement that calls itself REDEM short for Restart Democracy whose last demonstration on Feb 28 ended in disarray amid violence.

REDEM is an offshoot of a group called Free Youth, and in addition to the movements core demands from last year, its proclaimed goals are to build democratic socialism and minimise political and economic inequality.

At its Feb 28 protest, violence broke out when demonstrators tried to force their way past police lines into an army base. Twenty-three police officers and 10 protesters were injured, and a 41-year-old police officer died of a heart attack.

Saturday’s protest ran the risk of being provocative, since organisers asked people to prepare to burn rubbish in front of the court to symbolise to how rotten they said Thailand has become.

Protesters outside the court shouted slogans calling for their leaders freedom and burned garbage as promised. There were no violent confrontations, but the group WeVo, which provides security for the protesters, said more than 30 of its members were arrested as they were assembling nearby. It was not immediately known what they were charged with.

The protest movement lost steam when it took a break in December and January as Thailand was hit by a second wave of coronavirus infections. It is now trying to reinvigorate itself but has been hampered by the recent jailing of some of its leaders who are pending trial on several charges, including defaming the monarchy.

According to Thai Lawyers for Human Rights, at least 382 people, including 13 minors, have received criminal charges for joining protests and expressing their political opinions from July 2020 to February 2021. Of that total, at least 60 people are charged with lese majeste, or defaming the monarchy, which is punishable by up to 15 years in prison.

Criticisms of the monarchy are highly controversial, because the institution has been widely considered an untouchable, bedrock element of Thai nationalism.

On Feb 9, prosecutors formally charged four top protest leaders with violating the lese majeste law for the first time since the police started to make arrests under the law last November. The four were denied bail.

More than 3,000 police were mobilised to counter demonstrators, and the authorities placed shipping containers to block access to an army base and parked a water cannon truck next to the Criminal Court, in front of which protective netting was placed.

A government order was issued on Friday banning rallies in the greater Bangkok area without official approval. Violations are punishable by up to two years imprisonment and a fine of up to 40,000 baht ($1,310).

Saturday’s other rallies, including one held by supporters of the monarchy, passed without incident.

Published in Dawn, March 7th, 2021

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