By The Nation Editorial
The first major mistake was to impose a “severe emergency” in Bangkok on October 15 following a mass rally on October 14 and an incident involving the royal motorcade.
The second was to fire water cannon and tear gas to disperse protesters in Siam Square on October 16, at a rally attended by many schoolchildren.
The third was to use water cannon and tear gas and failing to prevent clashes between protesters and royalists outside Parliament on November 17. The government was accused of showing bias towards royalist protesters, while some government MPs and politicians were accused of recruiting yellow shirts to show support for the government and monarchy. Pro-democracy protesters also suspected that government MPs were seeking to initiate violence in order to justify cracking down on the pro-democracy movement.
The November 17 clashes left dozens injured and several people had to be hospitalised with gunshot wounds. Protesters retaliated by splashing paint on police headquarters during a mass rally at Ratchaprasong Intersection on November 18. They also graffitied the road to express their anger at the government and police and their critical views of the monarchy.
Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, instead of learning from the mistakes, vowed to use “all laws and articles” to deal with the protesters. Police now say they are ready to charge protesters with lese majeste under Section 112 of the penal code, which carries jail terms of between three and 15 years.
On the eve of Wednesday (November 25)’s rally outside the Crown Property Bureau, police arrested protest leader Piyarat Chongthep and charged him with sedition, which carries a jail term of up to 7 years.
Protesters plan to meet at Democracy Monument at 3pm on Wednesday before marching to the Crown Property Bureau nearby.
Further harsh action by the government and police will put Thailand’s reputation at greater risk, given that Thai authorities already face calls from the international community to drop serious charges against peaceful protesters who are exercising their political rights. The UN Human Rights Commission has long objected to the use of the lese-majeste law to silence political voices. International pressure may have played a role in halting the use of Section 112 by the Prayut administration, but now Section 116 (on sedition) appears to be operating as its surrogate.
Protesters’ push for full restoration of democracy via Prayut’s resignation, a new Constitution and reform of the monarchy is making headlines around the world. The ongoing global coverage is having an impact on the credibility of the government and the reputation of the monarchy.
Any escalation of the crackdown by the government, police and judiciary risks damaging the reputation of the government and monarchy beyond repair.
In recent years, Western powers have unified against various human rights abuses around the world. Following political conflict in Hong Kong last year, we witnessed the United State and its Western allies pressure Beijing by imposing sanctions against Chinese authorities deemed to be violating human rights.
From January, the new US administration under Joe Biden is expected to place even more emphasis on human rights and democratic values when dealing with trading partners such as Thailand. This could lead to trade restrictions or sanctions against high ranking officials accused of violating human rights, as we witnessed when the US and European Union suspended trade agreements with Thailand following the military coup in 2014.
But more importantly, a brutal crackdown would trigger even deeper divisions in Thai society, given that large numbers of the younger generation and pro-democracy citizens are unlikely to bow to what they consider unjust laws and inhumane government actions.
Therefore, embracing reform of key institutions is the safer path that will ensure that everyone benefits. In contrast, imposing harsh actions and draconian laws on citizens will only drag the country closer to the abyss.