Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit thailand protests
Banned pro-democracy leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit (Image: Wikimedia)

This month’s anti-government protests in Thailand, the first major street protests since the country’s 2014 coup, have their genesis in 2017’s military-friendly constitution and the subsequent 2019 election.

Inspired by Hong Kong’s protests, Thai youth — made up of thousands of university and senior high school students — have finally had enough of the country’s ruling elite and have taken to the streets in Bangkok and other cities, including Phuket. They have called for the government’s resignation and a new constitution.

Last year’s ballot exposed the general incompetence of Thailand’s military junta, which had crafted a constitution but only managed to retain control of its new parliament because of a rigged (100% junta appointed) senate, which has gone on to deliver little of what has been promised.

After an attempt to gerrymander the lower house failed, coup leader Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha had to rely on the upper house to garner enough votes to remain PM. 

The military’s retribution on the Thai people came in the form of charges against popular opposition leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, banning him from politics along with his Future Forward Party.

The implementation of COVID-19 lockdowns saw delayed protests against the move, and the government more broadly.

Despite Thailand remaining remarkably unscathed by COVID-19 so far — the official infection number is 3295 (albeit with low testing) and 58 deaths — the government has managed to exacerbate the people’s grievances.

The country’s ongoing state of emergency, which has been regularly extended — most recently until the end of August — was ostensibly declared to hand the military and police forces greater powers to control the pandemic. But critics say the government has used emergency powers to increase censorship — already amongst the harshest in non-communist south-east Asia.

The coronavirus has exposed the parlous state of the Thai economy which was already under-performing its south-east Asian peers in the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia and its fast-rising industrial rival Vietnam. Heavily reliant on tourism (about 20%) with an ageing manufacturing sector, it is now forecast to decline by 8.1% amid growing unemployment and half a workforce already in informal labour arrangements.

Corruption among the country’s ruling elite continues to make headlines, first with Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan appointed to lead the ruling Palang Pracharath Party despite a major scandal involving expensive luxury watches.

Prawit’s ascension in turn saw four of the country’s more respected cabinet ministers step down to make the way for his cronies in the key energy, transport and finance portfolios, widely seen as the gateway to huge under-the-table payments for the politicians that control them.

Police corruption, never far from headlines in Thailand, hit a new height last week when long-standing charges were dropped against Vorayuth “Boss” Yoovidhya, heir to the Red Bull energy drinks fortune, for the 2012 hit-and-run killing of a policeman. A fugitive since fleeing charges laid in 2017, he quietly returning home in “triumph” earlier this month drawing widespread criticism on social media.

Thailand remains a remarkably feudal nation despite having many trappings of a modern state. King Maha Vajiralongkorn sits atop one of the world’s largest fortunes and remains revered — at least legally, as he is protected by harsh lèsemajesté laws forbidding any criticism — despite the fact he spends a large slice of his time with a personal travelling court of 200 or so people at his castles in Germany and Switzerland.

The grubby history of some of the Thai establishment’s strongest critics disappearing also marked a new and ugly chapter on June 4 when pro-democracy activist Wanchalearm Satsaksit was abducted by armed men outside his home-in-exile in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

All of this lays bare the cold reality that Thailand’s elite lives in a different world from most of its citizens and that the country’s security forces act with impunity at the behest of the ruling class.

This sharp divide between rich, titled and military leaders and ordinary Thais has been the theme of the protests — now, people seek to strike against an increasingly ossified system plainly tilted against them.

Any unrest in the region is concerning for Australia, but the strengthening of authoritarian regimes under the cover of COVID-19 should be even more so.

That this is occurring at a time when the federal government is actively running down Canberra’s capabilities diplomatically and cutting back strategically invested aid programs should give all Australian pause for thought.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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