Police Arrest Leaders Of Student-Led Group That Challenges Thailand's Monarchy
LEILA FADEL, HOST:
To Thailand now, where police are arresting leaders of a largely student-led pro-democracy movement. They've been holding rallies calling for the military-backed government to step down and for reform of Thailand's monarchy. Michael Sullivan reports from Bangkok.
MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: On the night of Aug. 10, 21-year-old Panusaya Sithijirawattanakul's life changed forever.
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PANUSAYA SITHIJIRAWATTANAKUL: (Non-English language spoken).
SULLIVAN: That's the night she got up on stage at Thammasat University to read a 10-point manifesto aimed at curbing the influence of Thailand's politically powerful monarchy - a third-year sociology student grabbing the third rail of Thai politics.
SITHIJIRAWATTANAKUL: I asked for it. I want to be the one who read that manifesto because I want to be the one to change thing in this country, and I think this is the chance to do that.
SULLIVAN: It's the first time in modern Thai history that the monarchy had been talked about publicly in a critical way, and it caught the military-backed government by surprise.
DAVID STRECKFUSS: The military government doesn't know how to approach or to address this new kind of threat.
SULLIVAN: David Streckfuss is the author of a book about the Thai monarchy and the laws written to shield it from public discussion. Those laws can land critics in jail for up to 15 years in a country where the symbiotic relationship between the military and the monarchy has existed for decades.
STRECKFUSS: The Thai state is not ideologically equipped to handle such a open confrontation over something they fought for decades to keep from public criticism or scrutiny.
SULLIVAN: And that, he says, makes the students' gambit risky if the government chooses to do more than arrest a few protest leaders. Thammasat student Panusaya says the decision to read the manifesto came easily.
SITHIJIRAWATTANAKUL: I think the monarchy has to be under law like everyone in this country.
SULLIVAN: As she sees it, limiting the power and role of the monarchy is the first step toward restoring real democracy in Thailand and new elections and a new constitution to replace the one drafted by the military in 2017. Her speech has drawn the ire of rabid royalists on social media, but she's not worried.
SITHIJIRAWATTANAKUL: I have a lot of defenders who help me with that kind of people, so I don't have to worry about it because I know that a lot of people agree with me.
SULLIVAN: That doesn't mean she doesn't need to worry. Nearly a dozen exiled critics of the monarchy and/or the military have gone missing in the past several years.
SITHIJIRAWATTANAKUL: I know that. I know that. I'm not stupid. And my head's tell me that it's too risky, saying things that's so harsh. But my heart's saying that I know it had to be done. So I listened to my heart more.
SULLIVAN: The youth-led pro-democracy demonstrations are gaining traction in a country where job prospects for graduating young people are bleak, in a country where the military-backed government's stewardship of the economy has drawn mixed reviews even before the coronavirus cratered the economy. The demonstrations are also drawing a broader audience in a country whose king is believed to be among the richest men in the world, a country where the richest 1% controls more than half the country's wealth. It's time, Panusaya says.
SITHIJIRAWATTANAKUL: Now is, like, a new era. It's our generation. And if you don't change that, then we will have to live like this forever, and we don't want that.
SULLIVAN: She says she's ready to go to jail or worse for her beliefs. An arrest warrant was issued for Panusaya on Wednesday. For NPR News, I'm Michael Sullivan in Bangkok.
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