Protests return to campus after reformist’s failed PM bid

Students staged a protest on Friday afternoon at a university in Bangkok to vent their fury at unelected senators who blocked a progressive-leaning lawmaker from securing the premiership – a setback which some fear could spark a new wave of protests similar to those that gripped Thailand in 2020.

Despite placing first in the May election, Move Forward Party frontrunner Pita Limjaroenrat earlier this week failed to secure enough votes in parliament to become prime minister due to objections from a bloc of conservative senators – nearly all of whom were handpicked by the ruling military junta that seized power in 2014.

The move was condemned on 21 July by student activists who took turns to speak at the rally inside Kasetsart University in Bangkok. The campus rally was billed by organisers as an event to “eliminate the evil senate”.

Hundreds attended the rally, many wearing black. In lieu of the Thai national anthem, which is played daily at 6 pm in universities and public places, students sang “Do You Hear the People Sing?” a rousing revolutionary anthem from the musical Les Miserables. There were no reports of arrests or violence.

“Our future was robbed and many of our rights stripped away,” a Kasetsart student, who identified herself by her nickname Kati, said from the stage.

“How can we serve the people when there are those who are trying to take away our rights, and laying obstacles for the younger generation and their ideology? They don't want our country to progress,” she said to applause. “I want all of you to know that these people exist.”

A failed gambit

Pita’s Move Forward Party campaigned on pledges to end conscription, implement European-style welfare programmes, and reform the country’s powerful institutions, such as the military, the police and – perhaps most controversially – the monarchy.

The pledge to reform the monarchy sparked widespread debate and pushback from conservative elements in Thailand, where criticism of the royal family is not just a social taboo, but a criminal offence under the country’s draconian lèse majesté law. But the party’s reformist stance found enthusiastic support among younger voters and students, many of whom reached the voting age this year.

Amending the lèse majesté law, a key Move Forward policy promise, encountered fierce opposition from pro-establishment parties and senators when parliament convened on 13 July to vote on a successor to incumbent ruler retired army general Prayut Chan-o-cha who has been in power since the 2014 military coup.

Pita eventually lost the vote. While a majority of MPs cast their vote for Pita, only 13 of the 250 senators approved his nomination. Under the current charter – drafted under Prayut’s military rule – a simple majority of the combined lower and upper houses is needed to clinch the premiership.

Move Forward suffered yet another blow on 19 July when the Constitutional Court suspended Pita’s status as an MP while it deliberated on allegations that he possessed shares in a media company, an offence banned under the charter.

The tribunal, which wields judicial authority in settling matters related to the constitution, could ban Pita from politics for 10 years and disband his party if he is found guilty.

Student activist groups based in three universities – Chulalongkorn, Thammasat, and Prince of Songkla – released a joint statement the same day to condemn what they described as “a distorted exercise of legal power” to “obstruct a transition to the new government following a democratic election”.

“We'd like to say this to all relevant parties: it is not too late for you to conduct your duty with honesty, transparency, and fairness in accordance with your profession, and it is not too late for you to show a moral courage to defend the interest of the public,” part of the statement said.

A familiar script

For many observers, the recent chain of events is a flashback to 2020 when the same court ordered Move Forward’s predecessor, the Future Forward Party, to be disbanded on similar charges: its founder Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit was convicted of illegally holding shares in a media company.

Angered by the 2020 ruling, students held a series of protests across university campuses, including Kasetsart, before spilling into the street in huge demonstrations that gripped Bangkok throughout the year. Protesters and student activists also openly challenged the monarchy and demanded extensive reforms of the royal institution, breaking decades of taboo.

The authorities responded by cracking down on the protests, invoking the COVID-19 emergency law to ban gatherings, and filing royal defamation charges against individuals accused of insulting or mocking the monarchy, including students.

Earlier this month, a 19-year-old law student at Ramkhamhaeng University was convicted of lèse majesté by a court in southern Thailand and sentenced to two and a half years in prison.

The court said in its ruling on 12 July that the student, known to the media only by his nickname ‘Bell’, defamed the monarchy by implying in a Facebook post that King Rama X was a tyrant, and calling for his overthrow. The student is appealing the verdict.