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29 Nov 2020 6:31
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  •   Home > News > International

    Why are Thai protesters risking 15 years in jail by demonstrating and speaking out against the King and the royal family?

    A Hunger Games salute. Harry Potter costumes. And references to He Who Must Not Be Named. All have been used as part of protests by tens of thousands of young Thai people on the streets of Bangkok since July. But what has prompted these demonstrations? He

    A Hunger Games salute. Harry Potter costumes. And references to He Who Must Not Be Named.

    All have been used as part of protests by tens of thousands of young Thai people on the streets of Bangkok since July.

    The bold demonstrations against the Government have been the biggest since the 2014 coup, but protesters have also faced a great deal of resistance.

    A ban at one point on public gatherings, riot police using water cannons, and the very real possibility of jail time so far haven't deterred them.

    Here's what we know about what has prompted these protests and why pop culture is being used to send a message.

    What do the protesters want?

    The leaders of the protest movement started with three demands: for parliament to be dissolved, for the constitution to be changed, and for an end to the harassment of opposition activists.

    First, they want Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha to resign.

    He was the former military general who led a 2014 coup, saying at the time that the military needed to restore order following a cycle of mass protests and violence.

    Mr Prayuth then rewrote the constitution to extend the powers of the military and the monarchy.

    Protesters are calling for a new constitution to rein those powers back in and for reforms of the monarchy, which is unprecedented.

    Those demonstrating on the streets complain that King Maha Vajiralongkorn endorsed Mr Prayuth's premiership, after an election in 2019 that opponents say was engineered to keep him in office.

    Mr Prayuth says the election was fair.

    Activists have also accused the King of misusing public money and trying to influence political and military decisions.

    And they've petitioned Germany, where he spends a lot of his time, to look closely at whether he has exercised his power while in the European nation, and if so, whether that is lawful.

    How did this all begin?

    The unrest has been building since the start of the year when a Thai court dissolved one of the opposition parties over what it said was an illegal loan from its billionaire founder and leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit.

    The court also banned Future Forward party leader Mr Juangroongruangkit and 15 other party executive board members from politics for 10 years.

    The decision drew outrage from young people, who were some of the biggest supporters of the party and its criticism of the establishment.

    At first demonstrations were in code. There was a Harry Potter-themed protest against He Who Cannot Be Named.

    Then a three-fingered salute from The Hunger Games franchise was adopted as a symbol of the resistance.

    This has coincided with an economic decline in Thailand, which has been fuelled by COVID-19 lockdowns, and only made people angrier.

    In August, 21-year-old student Panusaya 'Rung' Sithijirawattankul was the first to publicly challenge the power and wealth of the monarchy, by reading out a 10-point manifesto for reform at a large rally.

    She was arrested eight weeks later, having taken a leading role in several protests, for sedition and has been denied bail.

    Demonstrations have continued despite the leaders' arrests and even during a temporary government ban on gatherings of five or more people.

    Mr Prayuth introduced the ban in an effort to rein in the growing protest movement, but it had the opposite effect.

    More Thais came out to demonstrate alongside the students.

    What's Thailand's King said about all this?

    Neither he nor the palace have spoken publicly about the monarchy reform movement.

    But as the King greeted thousands of people at the Grand Palace in October, he lauded a man who raised a picture of his late father, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, at an anti-establishment protest.

    "Very brave, very brave, very good, thank you," the King said in a video circulated widely on social media.

    The Royal family has strong support around Thailand, and supporters participate in their own rallies arguing the royal family is a sacred institution and a pillar of society that must be revered.

    The royalists wear yellow shirts and wave Thai flags, while holding up portraits of the King, and chanting "long live the King".

    Thais are taught from a young age to respect the monarchy and have never openly questioned it until this year.

    That is in part because King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who reigned for more than 70 years, was much-loved in Thailand.

    There was a huge public outpouring of grief when he died in 2016.

    Why have Thais been afraid to speak out against the monarchy?

    Thailand has strict lese majeste laws, which state that anyone found guilty of defaming, insulting, or threatening the King, Queen, heir-apparent or regent could be sent to jail for up to 15 years.

    In June, Mr Prayuth said the law was no longer being applied because of "His Majesty's mercy".

    But dozens of activists have been arrested on other charges, including sedition, as a result of these protests.

    The Government has said it does not target opponents, but it is the responsibility of police to uphold the law.

    So where's it all heading?

    So far, none of the protesters' stated demands have been met.

    The Prime Minister says he won't resign or give in to "mob demands", but will discuss the issues in Parliament.

    Demonstrators say they'll keep up their fight for as long as it takes for things to change. So this could continue for some time yet.

    © 2020 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved

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