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Thailand Police Arrest Activists, Escalating Protest Crackdown – The New York Times

Rappers, a lawyer and other government critics have been accused of sedition, a crime that can carry a 7-year prison sentence.

Credit…Sakchai Lalit/Associated Press

Hannah Beech

BANGKOK — His offense was syncopated. And it rhymed.

Dechathorn Bamrungmuang, a member of the Thai collective Rap Against Dictatorship, was arrested on Thursday on charges of sedition, human rights lawyers said, part of a mounting crackdown by a government seemingly allergic to dissent.

A day earlier, the authorities took into custody for the second time a lawyer who had publicly called for the Thai monarchy’s powers to be reined in. At least six pro-democracy activists were also arrested on Wednesday and Thursday on charges of sedition, a crime that can carry a seven-year prison sentence, the organization Thai Lawyers for Human Rights said. Another rapper was taken in, too. Yet more student activists were served with papers that appeared to indicate they could be imminently detained.

“The United Nations and concerned governments should speak out publicly against the rolling political repression in Thailand,” Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement. “Thai youth are increasingly demanding real progress toward democracy and the rule of law so they can freely express their visions for the future of the country.”

The legal actions followed weeks of protests by students that culminated on Sunday in the largest street rally in Thailand since a military coup six years ago. Because of a state of emergency imposed to control the coronavirus, the protests were technically illegal. But that did not stop more than 10,000 people from gathering at Democracy Monument in Bangkok.

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Credit…Adam Dean for The New York Times

On Wednesday, hundreds of students, who have been protesting school rules like mandatory haircuts and the tradition of prostrating themselves to teachers, gathered at the Education Ministry in Bangkok, calling for an end to the regimented strictures of Thai society. They raised three fingers in the air, a symbol of defiance drawn from the “Hunger Games” films that was once banned by the junta behind the 2014 coup.

Thailand has held elections over the decades, but meddling by the military has regularly upended the people’s vote, with a dozen successful coups since absolute monarchy was abolished in 1932. A former army chief who led the last coup, Prayuth Chan-ocha, remains prime minister. Three other retired generals hold cabinet positions.

Mr. Prayuth has said that he is willing to listen to the students. He has also joked that he would like to execute journalists who veer from the truth and assailed those who have called for more accountability over the monarchy.

The junta leaders said protecting the palace was a key reason for their putsch, and the current government, which took power last year after elections that independent observers said were flawed, often wraps its policies in a royal mantle.

King Maha Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun is present in Thailand for only days at a time, living most of the year in Europe. Since his father died in 2016, he has consolidated his authority, taking control of royal coffers and army units that traditionally add their firepower to coups.

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Credit…Bureau of the Royal Household, via Associated Press

Thailand is bound by strict laws that criminalize criticism of the monarchy, potentially landing offenders in jail for up to 15 years. In addition to the lèse-majesté laws, the government has also imprisoned people for contravening sedition and computer crimes laws. Hundreds of people have been funneled through so-called attitude adjustment camps that are run out of military compounds. Dissidents have disappeared, too, with some of their bodies turning up mutilated.

The transgression of Mr. Dechathorn, who goes by the rap name Hockhacker, appears to have been a musical performance at a pro-democracy rally, according to the group of rights lawyers.

In 2018, Rap Against Dictatorship, the Thai musical collective, drew millions of hits for a widely shared video for a song called “What My Country Has Got.” The song referenced a student massacre and called Mr. Prayuth’s government to account for leading a “country that makes fake promises like loading bullets, creates a regime and orders us to love it.”

Another song, released this year, took on student hazing. The collective was awarded the Vaclav Havel Prize for Creative Dissent in 2019.

Sirin Mungcharoen, a pro-democracy activist from Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, said she received a police summons on Wednesday related to a protest in Bangkok on July 18. Ms. Sirin said that she had attended that student rally, but was not an organizer.

“It’s a way to create fear,” Ms. Sirin said, adding, “I will keep fighting.”

Muktita Suhartono contributed reporting from Phuket, Thailand.

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protests Thailand

Protests Grow in Thailand, Where Speaking Out Can Be Perilous – The New York Times

Demonstrators are demanding change in a country with a long history of suppressing dissent. Some protesters are even defying the taboo against criticizing the monarchy.

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At least 10,000 protesters gathered around Democracy Monument in Bangkok in Thailand’s largest rally since a coup in 2014.CreditCredit…Adam Dean for The New York Times

Hannah Beech

BANGKOK — They gathered at a monument celebrating Thai democracy. They raised their hands in defiance below a giant image of the king dressed in coronation regalia.

At least 10,000 protesters, many first-time participants in political rallies, gathered in Bangkok on Sunday, demanding change in a country where military tanks have tended to shape politics more than the ballot box has.

The nearly eight-hour protest, which filled a broad avenue in the heart of the city with black-clad people, was the largest rally in Thailand since a coup in 2014, one of a dozen successful putsches in the country in the last nine decades.

A state of emergency instituted because of the coronavirus made the demonstration technically illegal, and every participant could have been arrested simply for showing up. The police stood by, however, some idling behind a Mercedes-Benz showroom.

Thailand’s growing protest movement, which was set off by student activism last month, has since gained broader support.

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Credit…Adam Dean for The New York Times

While Thailand has escaped the brunt of the pandemic, it has been pummeled economically, and millions are out of work. With Prayuth Chan-ocha, the retired general who choreographed the last coup, still leading the country as prime minister, Thais have intensified calls for a new political order.

“We have had many political divisions in our country but now, no matter what our backgrounds, many of us are united in questioning the legitimacy of this government,” said Nuttaa Mahattana, a democracy activist. “Look at who’s here, many different types of people.”

The protest leaders have demanded a new constitution, one not written by the military, as the current charter was. They have called for Parliament to dissolve. They are pleading for the protection of human rights at a time when vocal critics of the military and monarchy have disappeared and been killed. And they say they will keep gathering if their aims are not met.

“We don’t hate the country, but we hate you, Prayuth Chan-ocha,” Benjamaporn Nivas, a 15-year-old student, sang from the stage she shared with others, taking the melody of a children’s song and adding new lyrics. “We don’t want dictatorship.”

Sunday’s protest took place at the Democracy Monument, which was built to commemorate the 1932 bloodless revolution that ended absolute monarchy in Thailand. The country is now a constitutional monarchy, but some of the protest leaders have accused the palace of breaching the terms of that form of government.

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Credit…Adam Dean for The New York Times

King Maha Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun spends little time in Thailand, living most of the year in Europe. He has consolidated financial and military power, bringing crown coffers and influential army units under his control.

After some protesters called for checks on the palace’s power in rallies last week, a rare challenge in a country where lèse-majesté laws can land critics of the crown in jail for up to 15 years, the authorities pressured the movement’s leaders to keep the monarchy out of their speeches.

But as Sunday’s rally stretched into the night, after speeches on labor law, student haircuts and rights for gay, lesbian and transgender people, Arnon Nampa, a young human rights lawyer, took to the stage and defied any such request. Earlier, a laser had projected a hashtag that asked in Thai, “why do we need a king?” onto the white face of the Democracy Monument.

The authorities “have asked us to stop dreaming,” he said, referring to “the biggest dream of seeing the monarchy stay alongside Thai society,” rather than floating above it unbound by legal charters.

“I am announcing here,” he added, “that we will continue dreaming.”

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Credit…Adam Dean for The New York Times

The demonstration took place under a large photograph of the king during his 2019 coronation, when he was formally presented with a 16-pound golden crown and a fortune that makes him one of the world’s richest royals.

Above the orderly rows of protesters was also an oversize picture of Queen Suthida Vajiralongkorn Na Ayudhya, the king’s fourth wife, in a military uniform. A former flight attendant, she has been given the military rank of general in the king’s bodyguard corps.

A pro-royalist counterprotest gathered on Sunday as well. Its numbers were small.

Even before the protest kicked off, the Thai security apparatus had begun harassing those who might want to speak out. Mr. Arnon was arrested on sedition charges last week. He and another activist are also facing lèse-majesté complaints.

Early on Sunday morning, Pongsak Phusitsakul, an opposition politician whose party was dissolved before it was able to contest elections last year, said his dogs alerted him to six plainclothes police officers who went to his home, he said, to intimidate him ahead of the rally.

“I’m used to it,” he said. “But I’m worried about the youth, what they will face and what their parents and families have to face.”

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Credit…Adam Dean for The New York Times

Previous Thai protests have been crushed with force, with dozens killed in downtown Bangkok, students included.

Even though many of the protesters on Sunday were posting selfies on Instagram and Facebook — at least when the internet hadn’t slowed to a crawl — few of the first-time participants wanted to give their names.

A 17-year-old high school student stood at the rally holding a small, handmade sign that said “Dictatorship shall perish! Long live democracy.” She posed willingly for a picture but balked at identifying herself.

She had told her parents she was going to the movies. Somehow, she said, she had ended up at the protest instead.

Muktita Suhartono contributed reporting.

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