Protesters across Thailand call for new elections following the arrest of pro-democracy activists

Pro-democracy activists participated in a new round of protests across Thailand this weekend, demanding both new elections and constitutional reforms while defying a coronavirus ban on gatherings.

The protests, partially fueled by the arrest of two activist leaders on Friday, reflect the persistent energy of an ongoing movement that sees the ruling government, which came to power following a 2014 military coup, as illegitimate.

On Saturday, more than 1,000 demonstrators rallied in the capital of Bangkok, one day after human rights lawyer Anon Nampa and student activist Panupong Jadnok were arrested by the police and held overnight, according to Reuters.

Police charged Nampa and Jadnok with sedition and violating a coronavirus emergency decree for their participation in past protests. According to Reuters, Nampa called for reforms to the country’s monarchy in an unusually blunt set of remarks last week — but while criticism of the king is forbidden under Thai law, the lawyer did not face charges for that statement.

Both activists were released on bail Saturday, but their detainment energized demonstrators at the Saturday rally, during which protesters chanted slogans like, “Do not harass the citizens,” “Police get out,” and “Dictatorship shall fall.”

On Sunday, hundreds of demonstrators took to the streets throughout the country, calling for pro-democracy reforms. Students are reportedly planning more protests for Monday.

The weekend’s protests are the latest manifestation of public discontent with the Thai government — dissatisfaction that intensified in the wake of the 2019 election, which saw coup leader Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha maintain power. Opposition parties disputed the results of that election, and activists have rallied in the thousands in recent months to criticize the government.

In July, some 2,500 protesters gathered near Bangkok’s Democracy Monument and listed their grievances. “Organizers issued three demands: the dissolution of parliament, an end to harassment of government critics, and amendments to the military-written constitution that critics say virtually guaranteed victory for Prayuth’s party in elections last year,” Reuters reported at the time.

Thai protesters are finding creative ways to push back against repression

While the political establishment, the constitution written by military leaders in 2017, and even the monarchy have been questioned by protesters in the past, a new and persistent wave of demonstrations began in February after a political opposition party was forced to dissolve. A court ruled that the pro-democracy Future Forward Party had received an illicit donation from its leader, and was disbanded.

That party was not small — it had the third-largest share of seats in parliament — and was popular with young voters, a number of whom have been active in recent protests.

Concerns about the authoritarian tendencies of the ruling party grew further when a well-known pro-democracy activist disappeared in June. The activist was reportedly kidnapped in broad daylight in Cambodia, where he’s lived in exile since 2014, prompting accusations of a government-orchestrated abduction.

“The students feel like what the government has done is not really democratic. They want a fair government,” Punchada Sirivunnabood, a professor of politics at Mahidol University, told BBC News.

Protesters have used creative methods drawn from the world of popular fiction to veil their criticism of the government and mitigate charges for violating restrictions on political speech. For example, some protesters have dressed up as characters from Harry Potter in order to advance their arguments against the government and monarchy. Other pro-democracy protesters display three-finger salutes inspired by the Hunger Games series.

On top of political concerns, extreme economic inequality and pessimism about social mobility are helping fuel unrest as well.

“More than fifty percent of the wealth is held by the top one percent,” Matt Wheeler, a senior analyst for the International Crisis Group, told Al Jazeera. “I think a lot of young people, when they look to the future for their opportunities, don’t see any opportunities — and so are more willing to take risks right now to see some political change.”

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