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Young Thais who questioned monarchy look to win seats in parliament

Young Thais who questioned monarchy look to win seats in parliament

Protesters show three-finger salute during a pro-democracy rally demanding Thailand's King Maha Vajiralongkorn hands back royal assets to the people and reforms on the monarchy, in Bangkok, Thailand on Nov 25, 2020. (File photo: REUTERS/Jorge Silva)

PATHUM THANI, Thailand: Chonthicha "Lookkate" Jangrew is going door-to-door asking people to vote for her in Thailand's May 14 election even though she faces possible jail time on charges of sedition and defaming the king during unprecedented protests in 2020.

The 30-year-old is one of more than a dozen activists from a student-led protest movement who are taking their once-taboo cause from the streets to the ballot box as candidates in the election.

They are bringing the issue of the role of monarchy in society into the open. King Maha Vajiralongkorn is officially revered under the constitution and insulting the monarchy is illegal under strict laws known as lese majeste, punishable by up to 15 years in prison.

Changing - though not abolishing - those laws is part of the platform of Lookkate's progressive Move Forward party, which is campaigning on reducing the severity of punishments for royal insult and how it is applied.

"If you want to make a change in Thailand, you cannot rely solely on street movements or only on parliament," Lookkate told Reuters in an interview as she took a break from campaigning in Pathum Thai province, on Bangkok's northern outskirts.

"Both paths need to move forward together," she said.

The 2020 demonstrations that started as opposition to the military's domination of politics following a 2014 coup and a disputed election five years later, broke ground in Thailand by questioning the supremacy of the monarchy.

Protesters pointed at what they described as an unhealthy power nexus between the military and the palace that justified repeated military intervention against elected governments.

The military says it only intervenes in civilian politics when it has to act to save the nation from chaos and it has ruled out any involvement in the election. The palace does not comment on politics.

The protests were eventually suppressed, largely by legal action against their leaders, with hundreds arrested and facing criminal cases that are still working their way through courts.

Lookkate said she has 28 criminal cases against her, including two of lese majeste, which would end her parliamentary career if she were to win a seat. Anyone convicted of an offence is disqualified from the legislature.

BIGGEST CHANGE IN DECADES

Analysts say that many of the issues that the youth movement raised are now part of mainstream discourse, including calls to amend the lese majeste laws.

The laws have been used against at least 240 people since the protests began in 2020, according to records compiled by Thai Lawyer for Human Rights.

Dozens of youth activists, like Lookkate, have joined political parties like Move Forward, Pheu Thai and the Thai Sang Thai, either as candidates or workers, said Kanokrat Lertchoosakul, a political scientist at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University who closely follows the youth movement.

Kanokrat said the protests had put issues such as LGBT rights and the ending of the military conscription on the agenda.

Move Forward party spokesman Rangsiman Rome said the party was a good fit for the youngsters who joined the 2020 protests that were rooted in opposition to the military's attempt to constitutionally enshrine its role in politics.

"The issues they were campaigning for, like changing the constitution or amending the lese majeste law, are aligned with party policies," he said.

Rangsiman did not say how many of the party's candidates came from the youth movement but Kanokrat said the party had at least 20 candidates, and more behind the scenes, linked to it.

"We have at least three pro-democracy parties in which youth activists have found various roles," Kanokrat said.

Political analyst Prajak Kongkirati from Thammasat University said the involvement of the young activists had brought the biggest change to mainstream politics in decades.

They had energised the progressive left while at the same time triggering the rise of a right-wing royalist party, Thai Pakdee, which is campaigning on toughening up the lese majeste law, he said.

"The political spectrum has not been this broad in 30 years," Prajak said. "We have a real progressive left that connects with street politics and a far-right party that rises as a response."

Another activist-turned-candidate Piyarat "Toto" Chongthep, 32, said that he was running because he realised he could not make an impact through protests.

"The most we could do was to symbolically express our discontent," he said. "We need help from the people to democratically give us power to make changes."

The progressive parties are not expected to win on May 14 but Lookkate said she was hopeful the presence of young people in politics would at least usher in a more fair system, in which old power-brokers know they cannot just ignore the result of a vote they don't like.

"I don't think it'll be as easy as before because if the people take to the streets again, it will go much further than it did in 2020," she said.

Source: Reuters/rc

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