Bangkok, Thailand – At least 10 pro-democracy activists have been arrested in Thailand as anti-government rallies resume a year after taboo-busting protests that challenged the country’s all-powerful monarchy.
Prominent protest leader and human rights lawyer Anon Nampa was one of the first to turn himself in on Monday afternoon.
According to Thai Lawyers for Human Rights, police came to his office to pressure him into giving himself up on allegations he had again broken defamation laws surrounding the monarchy. Within hours, a number of other activists were arrested.
The arrests come after protesters returned to the streets over the weekend, calling for the prime minister to resign and for the monarchy to be reformed.
“Another round of state suppression against the democracy movement, in particular those outspoken of Thai monarchy reform, has resumed,” said Sirikan Charoensiri, a human rights lawyer from Thai Lawyers for Human Rights. She added that nine other leading activists were also taken to jail and all their bail requests, including Anon’s, were denied on Monday evening.
Sirikan adds that the rejection of bail suggests that other key leaders “could face the same fate”.
Sunai Phasuk, a Thailand researcher with Human Rights Watch, says the situation is quickly deteriorating.
“The Thai authorities have become more and more aggressive as pro-democracy movements launch new street protests, using public frustrations about PM Prayuth’s disastrous response to the COVID-19 crisis as a rallying point in combination with outstanding demands for monarchy reforms,” Sunai told Al Jazeera.
“It appears that the Thai state has now adopted zero tolerance for dissenting voices. One year after the rise of youth-led democracy uprising, the prospect for compromise or reconciliation is now fading away. Thailand is descending into new chaos.”
When students first called for the reform of the monarchy in protests last year, they broke a longstanding taboo in a country where the monarchy has long been a deeply revered institution with the king holding an almost God-like status.
The royal family is also protected by strict royal defamation laws carrying penalties of up to 15 years in prison.
But the death of the revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej in 2016 and the accession of his now 69-year- old son, King Maha Vajiralongkorn, has prompted new discussions over the role of the royal family in public life. Some Thais feel the palace has too much political power and private wealth.
Student Panusaya “Rung” Sithijirawattanakul, was the activist who read the protesters’a historic list of demands on August 10 last year.
The 22-year-old recalls feeling a chill run up her spine as she took the stage in the early hours of the morning in front of tens of thousands of protesters.
Rung demanded that the royal family no longer retain legal immunity before calling for Thailand’s royal defamation laws to be abolished. She asked that the billions of dollars worth of assets held privately by the Thai king become public. And lastly, she urged authorities to investigate the disappearances and murders of critics of the monarchy – which sent shockwaves throughout the country.
A year later, she says some Thais are still unhappy with the status quo.
“The Thai royal family is far too powerful,“ Rung told Al Jazeera.
“The royals have their hands in everything. They control corporations, the Army, the prime minister, they control everything. But they’re supposed to be a symbolic institution. Yet they have the power to sign off on a coup. This goes against the constitution.”
Springing up on college campuses in March last year, the anti-government movement snowballed into a formidable street presence that shut down key parts of the capital in July.
“I was stressed and scared because I knew once I got up on that stage there was no turning back,” Rung said. “ I was afraid of what might happen to me. I was afraid that I could get arrested or kidnapped. But I knew that something had to be done. And I knew that I was the person to do it.”
Pro-democracy activist Anon has also felt intense pressure from the state.
Anon broached the topic of royal reform in a speech to protesters a week before Rung read out the list of demands.
Sporting a Harry Potter lookalike cloak, Anon compared the king to the book’s villain Voldemort – “he who shall not be named” – and said he would use “magic” to cast out the monarchy.
The royal family, he told the crowd some of whom turned up in Harry Potter gear, has unfathomable wealth, huge influence and total power over Thai society.
The speech led to his arrest in sweeping night raids by police but after his release on bail he remained undeterred. He took up the theme again last Tuesday.
“This year will be the last year we discuss monarchy reform,” he told the crowd in Bangkok. “After this, what will happen will happen. We can’t stop the sun from rising, we can’t control what people believe in. We’re here to fight to build a brighter future. This year we will fight with strategies, we will fight with goals.”
The new arrests come as the democracy movement is picking up speed for the first time in 2021.
Despite a rapidly deteriorating COVID-19 outbreak – with Thailand reporting record cases and deaths each day – thousands of protesters are returning to the streets calling for the same set of demands.
The protesters are still primarily calling for the former general-turned-Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha to resign. But they are also reiterating their demands for palace reform, a move that would curb the powers of the Thai king.
But analysts say it will take more than protests to change the political tide. Critics say that Thailand’s military-backed establishment is deeply linked to the royal palace. Supporters of the King, or “yellow shirts”, urge the military to protect the monarchy at all costs, even if that means undermining democratic norms.
“Thailand is in a prolonged malaise,” Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a professor of political science at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, told Al Jazeera. “Its self-correcting mechanisms that could provide political release of pent-up pressure and a more effective government no longer work.. The renewed protests are merely a function of this malaise, noises that will not get their way unless Prayuth’s backers can be convinced that the country has suffered enough.”
While Thailand’s power structure remains intact, Rung says that the war of ideas has already been won.
She says the students’ greatest success was creating a new pathway for open discussion around the monarchy – and that the country would never be the same. In response to the public criticism of the palace, the royal family’s PR machine organised multiple public events where royalists could get a chance to greet the royal family. It was the first time the royal family had taken to the streets to meet their supporters in decades.
“I knew that I may have to face future consequences,” Rung said reflecting on her 59 days spent behind bars. “And now today, I’ve been at war with myself. I’ve been at war over the decision of whether to continue with this movement or not. But over the past few days, I’ve decided that I will continue to fight. Because in this game, you have to win no matter what.”