Outside one of the busy shopping arcades in Bangkok, crowds of young protesters dance gray balloons with orange pieces melted over their heads.
We will act like meteors and hit the old-fashioned ways of the older generations in this country, the protest organizers explained. We will talk about all the topics that dinosaurs do not want to hear. The swollen dinosaurs trembled in the afternoon heat, representing the Thai government. The symbols are vivid, but the message is clear: teens want change.
A student-led protest movement has rocked Thailand over the past five months. Young people have taken to the streets to call for true democracy and have risked jail time to break a taboo that has long prevented the sincere, public discussion of the monarchy. Their protests, attended by tens of thousands, represent one of the boldest challenges the Thai royal family has faced in living memory.
Demonstrators say they are not demanding that the monarchy be abolished, but that it be reformed, accountable to the people and not above the law. They have also called on the Prime Minister, Prayuth Chan-ocha, a former army general who came to power in a 2014 coup, to step down and make changes to the constitution to make the political system more democratic.
Few topics have remained untouched by the movement. At Saturday’s rally, organized by Bad Student, a group representing schoolchildren, protesters called for not only a monarchy and government reform, but also an overhaul of the education system.
Students want investment in schools and an end to the military influence and rigid hierarchies that continue to dominate the classroom, stifling freedom of expression. Bad students have enlightened the attention of abusive behaviors by teachers from the use of humiliating punishments such as cutting students ’hair if deemed inappropriate, to the continued use of corporal punishment despite being banned. The group has also campaigned for greater protection for female and LGBT students. Yesterday, a student, dressed in a school uniform and her mouth closed with ribbons, held up a sign that read: I was sexually abused by teachers. School is not a safe place.
Authoritarianism is not only manifested through election manipulation, it is exercised in daily life, said Janjira Sombatpoonsiri, assistant professor of political science at Thammasat University.
Students say they want space for freedom of thought and a curriculum that allows for different interpretations of Thailand’s past. History always mentions the good side of Thailand that changes history, frames others, admires someone in heaven, said a speaker at yesterday’s rally, referring to the king.
The current curriculum glorifies the role of the royal family but includes very little of the most sensitive episodes in Thai history – including the massacre of pro-democracy university students in the 1970s.
The monarchy should be on the curriculum, but it should be the truth, said a 15-year-old who, like all protesters, asked not to be named. Her parents, she added, did not know she had come to protest.
On her wrist, she was wearing a pink band to indicate she is under 18 years old. Amnesty International and other rights groups at the rally distributed orange and pink ribbons to indicate whether a protester was under the age of 18 or 15. They hoped to remind the authorities to protect the safety of the young demonstrators.
On Tuesday, at a much larger rally organized by university students, water cannons containing chemical irritants were fired at protesters, as well as tear gas bombs and pepper spray grenades. Despite a large police presence, opposing groups of royal yellow T-shirts and pro-democracy students were allowed to confront each other, leading to violent clashes. By the end of the night, six people had been shot and dozens were being treated for further injuries.
The students accused the police of unfair treatment and failure to defend themselves. At a rally the next day, they attacked the police headquarters with paint.
There is a risk of further clashes between kings and protesters, said Matthew Wheeler, a senior analyst for the International Crisis Group, who fears such violence could be a pretext for a coup d’état to restore order.
What comes after any future coup is also troubling. If it were to anticipate a severe blow to dissent, it could trigger a wider conflict, he added.
Prayuth said last week that all laws, all articles would be used to take action against protesters, suggesting charges could be filed under the tough big-size law. So far the authorities have failed to use the law, which carries a 15-year sentence for anyone who slanders, insults or threatens a king, queen, heir or regent.
Other charges have been widely used. So far, 175 people have been charged with insurgency, which carries a maximum sentence of seven years, or public assembly offenses. That includes two of the teen organizers behind Bad Students Benjamaporn Nivas, 15, and Lopnaphat Wangsit, 17.
However, as authorities hinted at a further crackdown, protesters have vowed to escalate their rallies.
They are driven not only by renewed anger over the police response, but also by the recent decision of parliaments to reject one of their main demands to change the constitution so that the monarchy is accountable and so that senators appointed by the army to be replaced by elected officials.
Instead, lawmakers and senators agreed to set up a committee to draft reforms. This, too, will last for months, and no change will be made in relation to the monarchy, an institution which, under the current statute, is to be enthroned in a venerable position of worship.
In the past, at least you pretended to listen to protesters and there is a round of pseudo-negotiations, said Janjira, who added that authorities may try to push pro-democracy protesters to be aggressive in the streets in order to justify a strike. We are reaching a very dangerous point, she said.
At rallies, protesters carry signs mocking recent comments by King Maha Vajiralongkorn who, when asked about the protests, described Thailand as a place of compromise.
How dare you lie about this. The system is not like that at all, said a 17-year-old. They do not listen to our voices. They did not listen to us because it is not to their advantage.