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Behind Bangkok’s Wave of Popular Dissent
Behind Bangkok’s Wave of Popular Dissent
Thai Royal Guards march in front of a portrait of the King Bhumibol Adulyadej during a military parade as a part of a celebration of his upcoming birthday in Bangkok, Thailand, on 3 December 2015. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha
Report 274 / Asia

泰国推三宕四的民主化进程

泰国的军政府虽承诺回归民主,但却时时以推迟大选来延续统治。除新宪法之外,泰国还需建立新的社会契约,并以此化解民选政客与军队、官僚和皇室等非民选机构之间令其渐渐分崩离析的斗争。

执行摘要

2015年9月6日,由泰国军政府——国家和平秩序委员会(NCPO)——委任的改革委员会否决了宪法草案,而该宪法正是由其亲命的起草委员会所撰写。随之付诸东流的还有国家和平秩序委员会在2014年5月政变后所宣布的通往“全面民主化运转”的路线图。此举不仅让军政府的任期延长了至少七个月,还把全民选举推迟至了2017年中旬。包括对新宪法全民公投在内的大选之路已重新开始;但这一进程的展开却是要——在皇室继承迫近、经济衰退、以及军政府未能解决的政治社会持续两极化的背景下——逆流而上。而军政府的独裁倾向和要监督皇权交接的明确决心则会扼制泰国展开一场以基于保护人民主权的政治秩序为题的、包容性全民对话。

泰国被夹在了一场在政治、经济和地缘层面上变革与延续的冲突中,这则体现在民选与非民选政权之间的摩擦上。传统政治阶层——如,官僚机构、军方、和皇室脉络——在面临社会经济变革和省级选民的政治诉求时,寻求维持现状。自2001年到2006年政变前夕,他信•西那瓦总理(Thaksin Shinawatra)以其野心和竞选实力挑战了政权的传统卫士。而当局的政治剧目——如,官僚监督、宪法设计、司法干预、街头抗议和政变——都不能制衡他信,或是抑制为他所用的群众政治诉求。他信的政党则赢得了自2001年起的每一场大选。在普密蓬•阿杜德69年的统治即将画上句点、且皇室继位迫在眉睫之际,泰国当局为控制局面采取了更强硬的措施。

国家和平秩序委员会对英拉•西瓦那(Yingluck Shinawatra)的获选——他信的妹妹于2011年7月被选为泰国总理——进行了数月的抗议,并在2014年以持续暴力威胁为由夺得政权。不少要求英拉下台的人认为,政变是根除腐败和所谓的议会独裁的必要途径。国家和平秩序委员会则宣布了一个三段走的民主化路线图: 重建安全与和解、民选政府、以及持续的改革进程。然而,它却一再推迟普选的预估日期。

新宪法生效是路线图第二阶段的先决条件,而宪法起草委员会(CDC)所起草的文件则令持不同政治观点的观察者们都感到震惊。其条例包括多数党任命参议院、允许总理不经选举产生、以及一个由军方官员组成的“危机委员会”;而该委员会亦被授权,可借国家安全利益之名而凌驾于议会和政府之上。由国家和平秩序委员会任命的改革委员会在其游说下,否决了该宪法草案;从而,其不仅延长了任期,且还免去了草案在公投中被否决的潜在尴尬。鲜少有人对草案无果而终感到遗憾;对许多人而言,草案的否决使他们质疑军方向民选政府交权的承诺。大多数泰国人并不指望军政府会在近几年内——至少在新国王登基之前——禅让。一些人还担心,下一部宪法将助军方设计令其持久的政治霸权。

新的宪法起草委员会必须在2016年4月1日之前制定出一份草案,并进行全民公投。2015年草案的失败表明,国家和平秩序委员会可能无法颁布一部两全其美的宪法——其既能满足当局对维持政治控制的关切,又可以被公众所接受。如果下一部草案失败,那这一过程又将从头再来。若是公众仅为了回归民选政府而投票通过草案,那民选与非民选权力之间的冲突或将再度浮现。国家和平秩序委员会现下似是在行缓兵之计,而它所摒弃的商议性起草程序则可能有助于为其下部宪法赋予合法性。

少数民主社运人士举行了零星的示威活动,而当局的政敌却大多选择了静候时机。尽管国家和平秩序委员会对权力的掌控并未受到明显挑战,但当局对批判者的持续骚扰却暴露了它的不安全感,而这在某种程度上可能源自于精英间讳莫如深的派系之争。与此同时,对当局腐败的指控削弱了其在道德监护上的主张,经济的恶化则加剧了民众的不满情绪;如不加以缓和,这可能会激起更积极的反对声浪。

在历经十年动荡、并眼见着现国王的统治即将结束,大多数泰国人似乎要么接纳了,要么则是顺从了这段军事统治的时期,但对未来将有动荡的预料亦是普遍存在的。而那些坚信时间站在人民主权一方的人,则不断重复着他们对实现更大民主化的集体夙愿。但少有人认为军方放弃对宪法秩序的否决权便能解决问题,而新宪法和普选本身也难以解决民选与非民选权力之间在合法性上的争斗。解决争端还需要一份新的社会契约,且其最佳的实现途径则是就泰国政治秩序进行对话。然而,泰国却缺乏展开这种对话的必要条件,其包括对政治权利的保护以及愿妥协利益的领导力。就目前而言,这一过程的实现则因——对现国王统治即将到期和异见人士受当局镇压的——焦虑情绪而受到阻碍。

曼谷/布鲁塞尔,2015年12月10日

Pro-democracy protesters show the three-finger salute as they gather demanding the government to resign and to release detained leaders in Bangkok, Thailand 15 October 2020. REUTERS/Jorge Silva
Q&A / Asia

Behind Bangkok’s Wave of Popular Dissent

Anti-government protests and popular demands for reform, including of the once-sacrosanct monarchy, have accelerated in Thailand. In this Q&A, Crisis Group’s senior analyst for South East Asia, Matt Wheeler, explains how this crisis over political legitimacy has now reached a dangerous impasse.

Why are this week’s protests significant?

On the evening of 16 October, riot police used water cannons in central Bangkok to break up a crowd of several thousand mostly young protesters who were assembling for the second day in defiance of a ban on public gatherings. The episode marked a violent escalation in a series of pro-democracy protests that has been gaining momentum over the past three months and intensifying further over the past three days.

A day earlier, more than 10,000 demonstrators had gathered a few blocks away, defying measures announced the same morning under a “serious state of emergency”, which prohibits gatherings of over four people in the capital. The government put the extraordinary measures in place to “maintain peace and order” after marchers reached the prime minister’s office and held a large rally the day before. Despite threats that anyone attending or even promoting the protest online would be arrested, thousands flooded the Rachaprasong intersection, in the heart of the city’s shopping centre district, soon overwhelming the sizeable police deployment. The protesters occupied the area all evening, cheering a succession of speakers before dispersing peacefully. Rachaprasong is a place redolent with symbolism: it was the locus of 2010 protests demanding a new election, which were suppressed in a deadly crackdown by Thai army troops that May. 

Protesters called for the release of more than twenty activist leaders who had been arrested earlier in the day. Soon after authorities announced the new emergency decree, in the pre-dawn hours, the police had also chased hundreds of protesters away from the streets around Government House, where they had set up camp following a day-long march on 14 October. Much better attended than the government had expected, that march was also of symbolic significance as it coincided with the anniversary of the 1973 student-led uprising that toppled a military dictatorship.

The enhanced state of emergency failed to quash the popular movement.

The large turnout at Rachaprasong – on short notice and in defiance of authorities’ threats to arrest anyone joining – signalled that the enhanced state of emergency had failed to quash the popular movement. While most recent protests appeared to include a representative sample of the young, middle-aged and old, the crowd on 15 and 16 October was decidedly youthful, with most demonstrators appearing to be in their early twenties. Some in the crowd were high school students and first-time protesters, driven to join by what they saw as an unjust emergency decree clamping down on any expression of dissent.

Who are the protesters and what do they want? 

Street protests are a regular feature of Thai politics, but the 2020 gatherings are different from earlier rounds of collective action in two ways. First, students and young people, who were largely absent from the Red Shirt and Yellow Shirt movements that shook the country between 2006 and 2014, are the driving force of the present mobilisation. The youth accuse the current government of being a reincarnation of the junta that ruled between 2014 and 2019, laundered by the 2017 constitution and a slanted general election in March 2019. They insist that the government – particularly the (unelected) prime minister and ex-junta leader, Prayuth Chan-ocha – resign. Other demands include dissolution of parliament and a new constitution drafted with public consultation. 

Secondly, and more strikingly, activists are calling for reform of the monarchy – namely, that it be brought under the constitution. Anon Nampa, a human rights lawyer, thrust the country into a new era on 3 August when he called for palace reform at a small demonstration in Bangkok. On 10 August, at a rally at a university campus north of the capital, a young student activist, Panusaya Sithijirawattanakul, read a ten-point manifesto on reforming the monarchy, including an end to royal endorsement of coups d’état. Both of them were arrested on 15 October, along with other prominent and vocal students.

Activists are calling for reform of the monarchy – namely, that it be brought under the constitution.

Since these controversial speeches, protesters have criticised King Maha Vajiralongkorn, or Rama X, with unprecedented candour – for residing in Germany while the country faces the COVID-19 pandemic and for squandering the people’s taxes, among other issues. Until recently, such open criticism of the monarchy was unheard of in Thailand. It is punishable by up to fifteen years of prison. But while the harsh lèse-majesté law remains on the books, in practice, the longstanding taboo on public discussion of the monarchy has eroded surprisingly quickly over the last two months. Some protesters now openly lampoon the king, who acceded to the throne three years ago after his father, who had reigned for 70 years, died.

Despite this unprecedented criticism, which distresses many Thais, the government had refrained until 15 October from using the lèse-majesté law to curtail the protests. Police had arrested some student leaders for violating an earlier emergency decree imposed to support public health measures amid the pandemic and other laws, but then released them on bail. The students immediately returned to giving fiery speeches, and protests proliferated across the country, including a series of rallies by high school students demanding reform of the country’s stodgy and outmoded educational system. 

The government’s tolerance now appears exhausted.

The government’s tolerance now appears exhausted. The immediate pretext for the imposition of the “serious state of emergency” was alleged threats to Queen Suthida, whose motorcade passed anti-government protesters on 14 October, after apparently diverging from a planned route earlier cleared by police. Protesters raised three-finger salutes inspired by the popular Hunger Games film series – in which oppressed masses adopt the gesture as a symbol of defiance of tyranny – and jeered as the royal convoy passed, but there was no violence or obvious threat thereof. Two activists have since been arrested and charged with endangering the queen, which carries a potential sentence of life in prison. 

Why now?

Rallies calling for far-reaching political change started to escalate earlier this year, particularly on university campuses, after the Constitutional Court dissolved the upstart Future Forward Party in February. Established in 2018, the party had surprisingly come in third in last year’s general election, proving to be extremely popular with young voters. The COVID-19 pandemic stifled burgeoning demonstrations, but rallies resumed as the lockdown eased. The abduction of exiled activist Wanchalerm Satsakit in Cambodia in June – following the unexplained disappearance of at least eight others since 2016 – also sparked public outrage and galvanised a new generation of activists.

Faced with growing protests, the government seemed to relent on amending the 2017 constitution, a document drafted by junta appointees primarily to facilitate continued junta rule with a sheen of electoral legitimacy. But on 24 September, a two-day parliamentary debate on six amendment bills proposed by various parties ended without a vote, as the legislature went into recess until November. Any move to amend the constitution requires support from two thirds of the 250 appointed senators, which did not materialise. Instead, the governing Phalang Pracharat Party proposed a committee to study the bills for 30 days. Opposition parties walked out, denouncing what they viewed as a delaying tactic. Government officials have since hinted that charter amendment could take years, leading many to believe nothing will happen until the next general election in 2023. Protesters have little confidence in the government’s willingness to revise its bespoke political order.

What are the risks of a government crackdown? 

Thailand holds the world record for number of military coups, and its history is checkered with political violence. Many observers thus fear that the government – run largely by ex-generals – could opt for repression to quell the rising protests. The 15 October state of emergency, arrests of activists, and deployment of riot police against peaceful protesters mark a clear shift in the government’s response. With protesters emboldened by the 15 October rally’s success, they are likely to stage further demonstrations in Bangkok, in spite of warnings from senior government officials that all who participate face arrest and charges of violating the emergency decree. In view of the scale of recent rallies, more stringent government actions present a risk of violence greater than at any point since the April-May 2010 army crackdown that killed more than 90 people. 

The stakes of the conflict, including the monarchy’s role in Thai society, and the terms in which both sides are speaking about it, are elemental and fraught. For many Thais, the current moment evokes memories of 6 October 1976, when police and right-wing paramilitaries – set off by an alleged insult to Vajiralongkorn, who was then crown prince –massacred dozens of pro-democracy students at Thammasat University. 

What can be done to reduce tensions?

The conflict between proponents of popular sovereignty, on one hand, and a hierarchical order underpinned by the monarchy, on the other, is swiftly coming into sharp relief. There is no evident mechanism in Thai society for addressing this conflict, but there are actions that each side can take now to reduce tensions and move toward consensus. First, the protesters should continue to adhere to their pledge of non-violence. Secondly, the government should refrain from using force to disperse peaceful crowds, lift the state of emergency, and protect rights of assembly and free speech. Thirdly, the government should publicly commit to a brisk timetable for amending the constitution and paving the way for a constitutional drafting assembly. 

More daunting is the need for a fresh concord on the monarchy’s changing role. Government officials and royalists insist that public discussion of this role is off limits, but their position is, in light of recent events, anachronistic. The degree of repression necessary to effectively reinstate the prohibition, including online, would tarnish both the government and the monarchy. Given the propensity of the army to abrogate charters, a new constitution alone will not resolve Thailand’s crisis of political legitimacy, but it could be a starting point in the search for a new consensus on how political power should be acquired, exercised and held to account.