The protests are unlikely to die down without a reversal of recent anti-democratic steps
The Thai government’s decision to issue an emergency decree, banning public gatherings and censoring the media, demonstrates both its acknowledgement of the seriousness of the challenge it is facing in the wake of months-long street protests and its refusal to address the actual problems. The protests, from July, by students against the authoritarian government of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha have since grown into a large political movement, raising challenges for the government and also to the monarchy, an institution that has historically been protected from public criticism by tough lèse-majesté laws. Mr. Prayuth, who captured power in 2014 through a military coup, won a disputed election last year. Backed by the King, he has tightened his grip on power and cracked down on dissent. In 2017, a new Constitution saw democracy being eroded further. This gradual erosion of political rights, along with the outbreak of COVID-19 and its related economic woes, triggered the protests. The protesters have earned the support of sections of society. They now call for the Prime Minister’s resignation, free and fair elections, a new Constitution that guarantees democratic rights, and want the powers of the monarchy clipped. The declaration of the emergency decree comes a day after protesters raised the three-finger salute, a symbol of resistance taken from The Hunger Games trilogy, at a royal motorcade.
Under the new rules, the authorities have banned the gathering of five or more people and restricted the publication of news “that could create fear”. They can also prohibit people from entering “any area they designate”. Clearly, the government has granted itself sweeping powers and wants to crack down on the protests. But this could have the opposite impact. That the students continued their agitation despite government pressure and have started questioning even the monarchy shows their resolve. The Thai monarchy, which lost absolute powers in the 1932 revolution, continued to maintain its high influence in the government and god-like status in society. Now, the protesters are openly challenging the powers of King Vajiralongkorn, who ascended the throne in 2016 after the death of his father, Bhumibol Adulyadej. The new King, who is mostly in Europe, and Mr. Prayuth, have become symbols of extravagance and oppression for the protesters, who have dismissed the emergency decree, saying the movement has gone past the point of no-return, and in turn setting the stage for a showdown with the police. In the past, authorities had used brutal force to suppress protests. In 1976, the police and right-wing thugs massacred protesters in Thammasat University, Bangkok. Mr. Prayuth and his Generals should ask themselves whether they should take matters to such a dangerous turn or reach out to the protesters, seeking a solution to the crisis.