Bangkok | Water cannons, tear gas, gunshot wounds: tension is mounting in Thailand between pro-democracy demonstrators, the authorities and the ultramonarchists.
On the eve of a new rally in Bangkok, here is what we know about the forces present and possible ways out of crisis in a country used to bloody repressions.
“No more compromises”
“We are opening a new era in our struggles”, “there is no longer any compromise possible”, warned leaders of the protest.
After four months of rallies, which brought together up to 30,000 people in Bangkok – unheard of since General Prayut Chan-o-cha’s 2014 coup d’état – the situation is getting tougher.
Slogans and insults against the monarchy, untouchable not long ago, are proliferating. Riot police are no longer shy about using water cannons and tear gas, and six people were shot and wounded last week, firing the origin of which remains unknown.
The pro-democracy movement has acquired a solid base on the streets and on social networks.
The “red shirts”, linked to ex-ex-prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, could join him – something they have done little to date, as have those hit by the recession caused by the pandemic.
But for Siripan Nogsuan Sawasdee, professor of political science at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, if they want to attract more people, the protesters will “have to organize themselves around unique leaders” and “prioritize their demands” (resignation of the first minister, rewriting of the Constitution, reform of the monarchy, of the education system).
None has succeeded to date, with Parliament simply deciding on the creation of a constituent assembly which should not decide on major changes.
But the protest “allowed the emergence of a new political culture which pushes the kingdom towards an unprecedented freedom of expression”, notes Siripan Nogsuan Sawasdee.
Emergency measures proclaimed then quickly withdrawn, arrests and then release of the pro-democracy leaders who remain indicted, the authorities have blown hot and cold in recent weeks.
“They navigate by sight,” said Paul Chambers of Naresuan University (north).
Unlike previous movements, the majority of the protesters are young city dwellers from the middle and affluent classes who dance to the sound of South Korean K-pop. Many are women. Confronting them directly could damage the country’s reputation on the international stage.
However, the authorities are toughening their tone, brandishing the threat of article 112 on the crimes of lese majesté which punishes up to 15 years in prison for any insult to the king, but which has not been used for a few years. “The limits have been crossed,” warned Prayut Chan-o-cha.
King Maha Vajiralongkorn, whose public interventions were hitherto extremely rare, leads a charm offensive, multiplying appearances, dialogue with his supporters and messages of “love” to Thais.
But these inflections should not be enough to silence discontent.
“There is clearly a campaign for it to gain legitimacy,” notes Thitinan Pongsudhirak, political scientist at Chulalongkorn University. “The question is whether it shouldn’t have been done much sooner.”
Ascended to the throne in 2016, Rama X is an unpredictable and controversial figure who has strengthened his powers by directly taking control of the royal fortune and two army units.
His very frequent stays in Germany have also raised questions, some criticizing him for not having been concerned about his subjects since the start of the pandemic.
This hypothesis seems more and more plausible, according to observers.
Thailand is used to bloody repressions (1973, 1976, 1992, 2010).
And, as in the past, “ultraroyalist right-wing groups are formed to harass the demonstrators” and play the provocateurs, according to Paul Chambers.
A coup d’état in a country that has seen 12 since 1932 is also possible.
In the short term, one of the ways to reduce the tension would be for the Constitutional Court to rule on December 2 for the departure of Prayut Chan-o-cha, accused of having occupied a military residence, although he did not was no longer head of the army.