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Thai activists face charges for protesting against corruption and delay of polls

A pro-democracy demonstrator takes part in a protest against the delay in fixing an election date in Bangkok, Thailand, 27 January 2018
A pro-democracy demonstrator takes part in a protest against the delay in fixing an election date in Bangkok, Thailand, 27 January 2018

Anusak Laowilas/NurPhoto via Getty Images

This statement was originally published on globalvoices.org on 9 February 2018. It is republished here under Creative Commons license CC-BY 3.0.

By Mong Palatino

Despite the ban on public gatherings and protest actions in Thailand, several groups and individuals were able to organize outdoor activities throughout the first six weeks of 2018 that challenged the policies of the junta-led government.

In 2014, Thailand's military staged a coup and has remained in power through a constitution it drafted in 2016. It has vowed to restore civilian rule, but Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, who was the head of the army during the coup, has not yet fixed a date for elections.

Meanwhile, the junta has strictly regulated the media and outlawed the gathering of five or more persons. It also has suppressed dissent by "inviting" critics to undergo "attitude-adjustment" sessions inside army camps, and arrested hundreds of individuals through its aggressive enforcement of the Lese Majeste (Anti-Royal Insult) law.

But activists and a growing number of concerned Thais have found creative ways to express their political views despite the threat of criminal prosecution. Below are a few examples of how some Thais have recently managed to campaign for the restoration of democracy.


#WeWalk

The People Go civil society network organized "We Walk, A Walk for Friendship" on 20 January 2018 to highlight the detrimental policies of the junta on social security, agriculture, natural resources and freedom of expression.

Hundreds were expected to join the 450-kilometer march traversing the northern part of the country, but the police blocked its progress. The organizers eventually decided to divide the march into groups of four to avoid violating the junta ban on public gatherings of five or more persons.

Nevertheless, the police filed a case against People Go's leaders and more than a dozen activists for failing to inform authorities about the protest.

Some farmers said they joined the protest to air their grievances against abusive landlords. The march is expected to end on February 17.


'Corrupt Rolex General'

Several daring protests were organized after a Cabinet photoshoot revealed that General Prawit Wongsuwan, the deputy head of the junta government, was wearing an expensive watch. After this, social media users did some online sleuthing and revealed 25 other expensive watches used by Prawit on various occasions. Many Thais were outraged by the issue, especially since the army has vowed to fight corruption in the bureaucracy.

Prawit is now being investigated by the country's anti-corruption commission because the watches are not listed on his statement of assets. He said the watches do not belong to him and he merely borrowed the luxury items from his friends.

During an inter-university sports parade, some students displayed an effigy mocking Prawit in a rare public protest directed against a leading junta official:

An artist known as Headache Stencil also created a street mural placing the image of Prawit inside an alarm clock. He explained why he chose that particular time-keeping device:

It's the alarm clock that wakes up every Thai person in the country. So many Thais just opened their eyes and woke up from an unrealistic dream.

Mural depicting General Prawit Wongsuwan by Headache Stencil
Mural depicting General Prawit Wongsuwan by Headache Stencil

Facebook

The mural was whitewashed after several days. Later, the artist wrote on Facebook that he was forced to hide after authorities allegedly stalked his and his acquaintances' homes:

To the police who sent officers to go to my acquaintances' homes in the middle of the night, your methods are not quite the police's way to do things … I only expressed my thoughts through art, the way it works in other countries.

I didn't kill anyone. You don't need to hunt me down.


The photo of the mural went viral on social media. One of those who expressed solidarity with Headache Stencil was Bangkok-based political cartoonist @stephh:

In the cartoon above, NCPO refers to the National Council for Peace and Order, the name of the junta-led government.

Meanwhile, some activists were detained by the police for doing a street mime mocking Prawit. An online petition calling for the resignation of Prawit has received more than 60,000 signatures.

A counter-petition by Prawit supporters quickly got 16,000 signatures, but it was later detected that bots were responsible for inflating its numbers. Dozens of Prawit supporters also staged a street rally asking him to remain in government.


Rally for the holding of elections

Around 39 activists were arrested after they joined a public assembly urging Prime Minister Prayut to fulfill his promise of conducting elections in 2018. More than 100 took part in the protest. The activists were charged for violating the Lese Majeste law because the venue of the protest was located near a temple owned by the monarchy.

The Political Prisoners in Thailand blog commented on the use of a law intended to protect the monarchy in order to detain political activists:

The junta's looking increasingly frazzled. Using the monarchy for these political charges means that it is willing to engender more confrontation and conflict in order to preserve its power.

The anti-junta protests are expected to generate more attention and even support from the public as the junta continues to evade questions related to the demand for the restoration of elections and democracy in Thailand.

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