Law change could quell waning protests
The protests by the anti-establishment Ratsadorn group in front of parliament on Friday and Saturday when the no-confidence debate was wrapped up were relatively peaceful and unprovocative. The crowd appeared to be outnumbered by the police.
One of the Ratsadorn core leaders, Ms Panusaya Sitthijirawattanakul, explained the small number of protesters present had something to do with concerns over Covid-19 infection. There have not been any mass protests for more than two months.
What she failed to mention is that several followers might be discouraged to join because of the increasing tendency by some elements among the protesters to resort to violence.
The case in point was the protest on the night Feb 13 in front of the Supreme Court when some of the protesters threw projectiles such as bricks, giant firecrackers and ping-pong bombs at crowd control policemen who were blocking them from entering the pavilion that houses the City Pillars Shrine.
At the time, their core leaders, including former red-shirt guard chief Sombat Thongyoi, were negotiating with the police to allow them to go inside the pavilion to perform a ritual. Mr Sombat later admitted that he had to run for cover from the projectiles which wounded about 20 policemen, although most were minor injuries.
Instead of blaming some rowdy protesters for being provocative and violent, most media blamed the police for attacking a medical volunteer who was seen lying in the road among the policemen.
The federation of medical students also denounced police for attacking the medical volunteer, without a word about the unprovoked violence by some of the protesters. Police, however, claimed the victim was not a medical volunteer.
The executive committee of the Medical Council later denounced the use of violence by all sides in the conflict and recommended medical volunteers carry clear insignia to make their role more visible.
Internal conflict and the prolonging of the protests without any clear sign that success is within reach appear to have sapped the morale of several protesters and forced them to take a break -- if not to desert the movement.
Besides the small size of the crowd, what is more significant about the recent protests is the absence of criticism of the monarchy.
This is probably a change of tactic to avoid the wrath of the lese majeste law or Section 112 of the Criminal Code rather than a sudden change of heart to embrace the institution as the protesters' demand for its reform remains unchanged.
Apart from that, four Ratsadorn core leaders, namely Parit "Penguin" Chivarak, Arnon Nampa, Somyot Prueksakasemsook and Patiwat Saraiyaem, are still being detained as both the Criminal and Appeals courts rejected their bail requests on the ground they are repeat lese majeste offenders. The bail rejection may have sent a strong message to critics of the monarchy.
Life in prison is no joke, and can be hell on earth for the weak of heart.
The courts have come under heavy criticism by royalists for being too lenient with repeat offenders. Among these critics are Dr Rienthong Nanna, director of Mongkut Wattana hospital and MC Julajerm Yugala.
The Ratsadorn group's stance, fiercely campaigning for reform of the monarchy, has been interpreted by royalist groups as an attempt to overthrow the monarchy.
This tactic has stiffened the royalists' resolve to protect the institution and reject any meaningful discussion on the issue with their opponents.
One solid argument raised by the royalists is what's so wrong with the Thai monarchy that it needs to be reformed or toppled, which they believe to be the real agenda of the Ratsadorn group and their backers? Then there are several other questions such as whether reform would improve Thais' lives?
Even Somsak Jeamteerasakul, the exiled mentor of the Ratsadorn core leaders, seems to have admitted the timing is not right for radical change as most Thais still revere the institution.
But the issue of harsh prison penalties, a minimum of three years going all the way up to a maximum of 15 years, as prescribed by Section 112, is worthy of being kept alive even if the current spate of protests comes to an end. The Move Forward Party has already proposed an amendment to this contentious law.
Dr Warong Dechgitvigrom, leader of the pro-monarchy Thai Pakdee group, has challenged Pita Limjaroenrak, leader of the Move Forward Party, to participate in a panel discussion on the issue of Section 112 to be held on March 3 by the FCCT. The challenge should be accepted as the opposition party has spearheaded moves to amend the law while other political parties have shown no such courage.
This may turn out to be the beginning of a sensible and peaceful approach to a sensitive and divisive issue among Thais.
Veera Prateepchaikul is former editor, Bangkok Post.
Former Bangkok Post Editor, political commentator and a regular columnist at Post Publishing.