World in view: Massive student-led protests cover Thailand

November 24, 2020

From the November-December 2020 issue of News & Letters

Tens of thousands of students, many from high schools, have been carrying on massive demonstrations for months. While centered in the capital, Bangkok, protests are occurring throughout the country. There are three principal demands: the resignation of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, a former army chief and head of the 2014 military coup; rewriting the Constitution that Prayut foisted on the country, including a Senate appointed by the military; and reining in the vast privileges and protections of the monarchy. The demands of the students and other participants are significantly multidimensional.

WOMEN AND YOUTH TAKING THE LEAD

There is huge participation by women as demonstrators and protest leaders. Women have spoken out against the three branches of the Thai patriarchy that control the country’s institutions: the military, the monarchy and the Buddhist monkhood. Women are demanding fuller access to abortions, decriminalization of prostitution, an end to taxes on menstrual products and the elimination of school rules meant to impose stereotypes of “femininity” upon girls. LGBTQ+ rights are demanded as well.

Chumaporn Taengkliang, a co-founder of Women for Freedom and Democracy, a political alliance that has helped spearhead the anti-government rallies in Bangkok, noted: “The male supremacy society has been growing since the [2014] coup. That needs to change. Women are not taking the back seat. They are the front line.”

Nattarika Donhongpai, a high school student attending a recent protest, spoke to the present moment: “Every one of us wants a country that belongs to the people. We want everyone to come out and use their rights and voices to express everything.”

A MILITARY CAPITALISM

Another important issue is the maltreatment of conscripts by the army hierarchy. Military service is mandatory for men, though the rich can buy their way out of service. In truth, Thailand is a country of military coups. Dozens occurred throughout the 20th Century. Every time the population rises to seek democracy, the military stages a coup, often with fatal results to protesters. No elections were allowed between 2014 and 2019. In 2020 a political party that was growing popular was ordered dissolved.

The military works in conjunction with the monarchy, protecting its status. Thailand is in a certain sense a military capitalism. There are some 1,600 generals, the highest per capita in the world. The army owns money-making development projects. It invested in banking and media as well as running hotels, housing developments and golf courses. Military men sit on the boards of private corporations. It is the military that has not hesitated to punish, imprison, disappear, murder, those who challenge its authority, or dare to criticize the monarchy.

But still the protests continue. “We have to conquer our fear, because if we don’t come out to fight then our future will not improve,” spoke Rewat Chusub, a 41-year-old tailor.

—Eugene Walker

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