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Tensions around Thailand’s protests against democracy are mounting. Police shot and killed six people last week and used tear gas and water cannons on the streets of Bangkok.
As the Thai capital prepares for the next big rally on Wednesday, AFP takes a look at the forces at work and what might come next in a country with a long history of political unrest.
After four months of rallies, sometimes involving tens of thousands of demonstrators, the mood is getting tougher and protest leaders warn that they are unwilling to compromise.
Slogans and insults against the monarchy – unthinkable until recently – are on the rise as riot police showed last week that they are ready to take decisive action against the rallies.
The student-led movement has gained a strong base on the streets and on social media, and experts say the Red Shirts, a once vocal group that led major street protests a decade ago, are joining the ranks could connect.
The movement calls on Prime Minister Prayut Chan-O-Cha, who came to power through a coup in 2014, to resign, to amend the constitution and to reform the monarchy.
Siripan Nogsuan Sawasdee, a professor of political science at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, told AFP the movement must prioritize its demands and focus its leadership on some prominent figureheads in order to move forward.
But with their taboo-breaking demands for monarchy reform, Siripan said, the protesters have already « allowed the emergence of a new political culture and pushed for freedom of expression unprecedented in the history of the kingdom ». .
Authorities have responded cautiously to the movement since it was set up in July. They announced immediate action, withdrew them, arrested protest leaders, and then set them free.
« Since the beginning of the movement, the government has played by ear, » said Paul Chambers of Naresuan University.
Authorities could be careful not to tarnish Thailand’s international image by repeating the crackdown on red shirts in 2010, which killed 90 people in the heart of Bangkok’s tourist and shopping district.
However, the authorities have tightened their tone in recent days, denouncing the threat of Section 112 – the kingdom’s notoriously harsh royal defamation laws that provide for up to 15 years in prison.
King Maha Vajiralongkorn, who wasn’t seen much in public before the protest movement, launched a magic offensive that made numerous appearances, spoke to followers and declared his « love » for all Thai people.
But he remains a controversial figure and does not enjoy the same affection that his late father, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, built during his seven decades on the throne that ended in 2016.
The current king has strengthened his powers by taking direct control of the royal fortunes and army units.
And his frequent stays in Germany have also raised questions – some criticize him for not worrying enough about his subjects during the coronavirus pandemic.
« There is obviously a campaign going on to gain legitimacy. The question is whether this should have happened much earlier, whether there is still enough time, « said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of the Institute for Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok.
In Thailand, protest movements often ended in bloodshed – twice in the 1970s, then in 1992 and 2010 – and experts warn that it could be repeated.
Some speak of a possible coup to add to the dozen Thailand has seen since its transition to democracy in 1932.
In the short term, next week brings a potential turning point with a verdict expected in a constitutional trial against Prayut for alleged abuse of the Army chief’s official residence.
If he loses, he will likely be kicked out of office – a development that would likely take away much of the immediate tension from the street riots.
World News – AU – Tension mounts in Thai protests as Bangkok prepares for large rally – France Aug.
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– Tensions are mounting in Thai protests as Bangkok braces for big rally
– Thailand Protests
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