Today
Fri 17 September 2021

Steve Shaw reports on the protests that have rocked Thailand by people wanting reforms of the influence held by the country’s monarchy

It is not unusual for protest movements to adopt iconic imagery to grab attention.

Some have adopted the clown make-up of Batman’s nemesis Joker, others have used the Salvador Dali mask from the popular Spanish show Money Heist. But in Thailand protestors have opted for a bright yellow rubber duck.

The ducks have been appearing at numerous marches and were initially a joke aimed at mocking the Government and the monarchy, which demonstrators want to see reformed. Over time, they have become shields used to block violent blasts of police water cannons.

Hong Kong activist Joshua Wong, who played a major part in the city’s Umbrella Revolution – which took its name from Hong Kongers’ creative use of umbrellas to block tear gas – has praised Thai protestors for being “probably the first place where the powerless citizens use #RubberDuck to fight against tyranny”.

The protests – which some have now dubbed the ‘Rubber Duck Revolution’ – first rocked the Thai capital of Bangkok in February when students demanded the resignation of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha, a former army chief who seized power in a 2014 coup.

Prayuth was elected last year but many believe that the vote was rigged because more than 200 senators, who play a crucial role in the election, were picked by the military. The public’s anger over being forced to live under what many regard a military junta has only worsened with Prayut’s poor handling of the country’s economy.

“The Government under Prayut has completely failed to manage the economy in Thailand and it has been getting worse during the COVID-19 pandemic,” one protestor who asked to remain anonymous told Byline Times. “By issuing an emergency decree and implementing lockdown, it has caused of huge number of people to lose their jobs and their income without any rescue measures. The Government’s attitude is to just leave all the problems to the Thai people to solve by themselves.

“Despite an economic crisis taking place both before and after the pandemic, the Government is still continuing to buy the army new equipment such as tanks, helicopters and recently two submarines. When Prayut was asked what his plan was to solve price issues in the agriculture market, for example, or the fall in the price of rubber, which is a major product in Thailand, his response was ‘if you want to sell it at good prices go sell it on Mars’.”


The Untouchable Monarchy

Prayut has refused to step down and the protests have continued to escalate, evolving from a youth movement on campuses to one involving tens of thousands of people.

With the escalation in size has come an escalation in demands. Thai people are now also defying the monarchy – an institution so untouchable that jail terms of up to 15 years can be given if someone is believed to have insulted it. The law, known as Article 112 or lèse-majesté, was even used in 2015 against a factory worker accused of insulting the king’s dog.

In stark contrast the the life of the average Thai – who earns around £5,000 a year – King Vajiralongkorn is regarded as one of the wealthiest rulers in the world. Shortly after taking the throne in 2016, he took personal ownership of royal assets, which includes prime real estate, as well as shares in some of the country’s biggest companies. He is estimated to be worth in the region of £30 billion.

The Government is also continuing to budget huge sums of taxpayers’ money to the monarchy. This has largely taken place while the king has not even been in the country, choosing instead to spend most of his time in Bavaria, Germany. He eventually left after being criticised by the German Government for trying to conduct politics from a European country.

The majority of Thai citizens struggle to afford even the most basic household items and are forced to use buses dating back more than 30 years. Hospitals are also having to ask for financial donations just to afford medical equipment.

“We would prefer to pay taxes and see that it has been distributed to what is necessary, like education, public transportation and healthcare, not just for one family,” the protestor continued. “As of now, we cannot speak up, criticise or even question the monarchy at all or else they use lèse-majesté… Any Thai can use it against anyone. For example, one woman used it against her own niece because she is a protestor.”

The protestors say that they want an end to Article 112 and for policies funding the monarchy to be changed so that they reflect the economic conditions of the country. They are also calling for the royal family to be prohibited from giving any kind of endorsement to coups.

Thailand has seen 13 successful coups and another five unsuccessful coups since the beginning of the 20th Century. The only way the country can achieve some kind of stable democratic system is to stop the coups and the key, many believe, lies with the royal family. It is claimed that, without the royals giving coup leaders the green light, it would be impossible for them to form a proper government.


Long Fight Ahead

Rather than negotiating with the people, however, the Thai Government is attempting to cling on to power and bring the protests to an end with violence.

Its primary weapon is a water cannon mixed dye and chemicals usually found in tear gas, giving the water a purple colour. It is this that has resulted in the rubber ducks becoming iconic as they are used to shield demonstrators.

A resident, who has taken part in several demonstrations, described both the police and army being deployed “fully armed” to take on protestors.

“The police demanded us to stop the protest within three minutes, and then they attacked,” he said of a protest in October. “They also shot directly at people and claimed they had followed the international law enforcement rules. When the media reported it, the Government then attempted to use the emergency decree against the media to shut them up. They said this was because the media was ‘giving information that could create fear and misunderstanding that will affect national security’. Since then they have continued using violence against protestors.”

He added that Thailand faces a “really long fight” ahead because the Government won’t listen.

“We have tried so hard to make people understand why we have to take to the streets and demand all of this,” he said. “The Government has taken control of the media and there are others in the media who give the wrong information about our demands. There are huge fights within families because the older generations believes that we want to overthrow the monarchy, while we are actually asking for the reform.

“On top of this, the Government is using the old tactics of spreading many fake news stories to create conflict between the people. Since the big media is not even reporting the truth, how can people who do not really follow the protests understand the real demands? Even people around me still misunderstand it.”


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