- Dozens of pro-democracy protesters were hurt during clashes with police and royalist counter-protesters Tuesday night.
- Protesters were demanding the removal of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-Cha and are frustrated that lawmakers hadn’t voted on draft amendments to the constitution.
- Other demands included calls for widespread electoral reform as well as changes to Thailand’s notoriously draconian lese-majeste laws, which criminalize any speech about the royal family.
- Thailand’s current electoral system was set up after a coup d’etat in 2014, which led to a military-drafted constitution in 2017 that left the army with many executive and legislative powers.
- The system led Prayut, the leader of the 2014 coup, to retain the Prime Ministership in 2019, despite only getting about 24% of the votes.
Thai Protests Dramatically Escalate
Nearly 50 protesters were injured in Thailand Tuesday night after police used tear gas, water cannons, and allegedly fired shots into a demonstration attempting to enter Parliament grounds.
Police say they never fired any shots into the crowd, neither live ammunition nor rubber bullets, despite a viral video indicating they may have. Regardless, police promised to investigate the shooting.
Pro-democracy protesters, police, and royalist supporters clashed over draft constitutional amendments that Thai lawmakers agreed to debate between Tuesday and Wednesday.
Royalists say these changes to the constitution would undermine it and the stability the Thai military sought after initiating a coup d’etat in 2014. Pro-democracy protesters were frustrated both because the amendments don’t go far enough to address their concerns over the current electoral system and because lawmakers didn’t put any of the amendments to a vote last night.
The Party King of Thailand
At the heart of the protest are two issues: the monarchy and democracy itself.
In Thailand, the monarchy is generally well-liked and highly revered, with the royal court refusing to interfere with politics as it is ‘beneath’ them.
However, there are still things for Thais to criticize that they can’t because of extremely strict lese-majeste laws. These laws criminalize any speech about the royal family, particularly the king, with hefty fines and upwards of 15-years in prison.
To understand how strictly these laws are adhered to, take the story of the first wife to the current king, King Maha Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun.
He sought a divorce, and she refused to agree to it, so he took her to court and blamed her for the dysfunctionality of the marriage. Because of the lese-majeste laws, she couldn’t defend herself as it would mean accusing the then-crown prince of doing something wrong, meaning she lost by default.
A dissolved marriage is hardly a rallying cry for protesters, but his other actions have led many Thais to say he debases the monarchy and is an embarrassment. In particular, King Maha Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun has a reputation as a partier and womanizer. He rarely spends time in Thailand, and in 2020 has spent just about 16 days in the country, despite widespread unrest and destabilization. He spends most of his time in Germany.
He has been married multiple times, not uncommon in traditional royal marriages as alliances with lords and dukes are reforged. However, that system of marriage hasn’t been necessary or used for about 100 years, since Thailand transformed from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional one.
Even so, the king has brought back another relic from Thailand’s royal past; a Royal Noble Consort. In the past, such a consort was another method (and form of polygamy) that allowed the royalty to retain alliances with important families in Thailand. His current consort isn’t generally disliked as a person herself, but the institution is considered backward in modern Thailand and a possible way for the king to assert his royal authority.
The Royal Noble Consort, Sineenat Wongvajirapakdi –a former army officer– gained the role shortly after his coronation and just months after the king married Suthida Bajrasudhabimalalakshana, another former army officer. Sineenat faced trouble at court, was exiled, and completely disappeared from the public eye, sparking rumors of imprisonment or death before reappearing in the king’s good graces in August 2020 and regaining her titles.
His treatment of the consort has led Thais to wish they could criticize such actions without facing severe jail time. On top of this, the king has been known to take photos that don’t look “kingly.” For example, he was filmed in Germany shopping in a crop top and was later photographed in Germany with Queen Suthida, before their marriage, in a short crop top and pants low sitting pants.
Is Thailand Democratic?
Despite the king’s antics, the fulcrum of the protests is really the issue of democracy in Thailand.
Currently, Thailand is ruled by Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, who protesters claim has an illegitimate hold on power and is incompetent.
Prayut is a former general and first came into power after he and the army staged a coup d’etat in 2014 after six months of political deadlock and tensions in the country. The army took over executive and legislative functions, and in 2017, they repealed almost all of the former constitution and made a new one.
In 2019, Thailand held elections for the first time since the coup, elections which were based on the 2017 constitution and decried as fundamentally undemocratic.
The 2017 Constitution, made by the military, changed how voting is done in Thailand. It made a system and gerrymandered maps that would heavily favor their preferred candidates. The system helped Prayut win the Prime Ministership with just under 24% of the votes and less than half of the seats in the House of Representatives.
Such a result was possible because the 2017 constitution still gives the military many overarching power, and part of that includes choosing all 250 members of the Senate. Those senators, along with the House’s representatives are who choose the Prime Minister, meaning that even though most Thais didn’t want Prayut in charge and his party didn’t hold the majority in the House, he was still the man who won.
This system has been the catalysts for the last five months of protests and calls for reform. Additionally, some groups also push for changes relating to education and LGBTQ+ rights.
Politicians are expected to continue debate over constitutional changes into Wednesday night. Any votes made won’t be confirmed until another vote a month from now, which gives times for lawmakers to reconsider and will likely sparking further protests.
Another possibility is that lawmakers set up a committee to draft a new constitution, which could take between months and a year. Such a move could sap the energy from pro-democracy protests as such committees often take between a month and a year to release a draft version.
See what others are saying: (DW) (Associated Press) (The Guardian)
Biden Vows to Defend Taiwan if Attacked by China
Some praised the remarks for clarifying U.S. foreign policy, while others feared they could escalate tensions with China.
Biden’s Remarks Create Confusion
During a Monday press conference in Tokyo, U.S. President Joe Biden said the United States would intervene to defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese attack.
The remark caught many off guard because it contradicted decades of traditional U.S. foreign policy toward China.
A reporter said, “You didn’t want to get involved in the Ukraine conflict militarily for obvious reasons. Are you willing to get involved militarily to defend Taiwan if it comes to that?”
“Yes,” Biden answered. “That’s a commitment we made. We are not — look, here’s the situation. We agree with a One China policy. We signed onto it and all the attendant agreements made from there.”
“But the idea that it can be taken by force — just taken by force — is just not appropriate,” he continued. “It will dislocate the entire region and be another action similar to what happened in Ukraine.”
Beijing considers the Taiwanese island to be a breakaway province, but Taiwan, officially the Republic of China, has claimed to represent the real historical lineage of China.
Since 1972, the U.S. has officially recognized only one China, with its capital in Beijing. However, Washington maintains extensive informal diplomatic ties with Taipei and provides military assistance through weapons and training.
Successive U.S. presidents have also committed to a policy of “strategic ambiguity,” refusing to promise or rule out a direct military intervention in case China attacks Taiwan.
The strategy is meant to deter China while avoiding a hard commitment to any action.
Biden Sparks Controversy
The White House quickly sent a statement to reporters appearing to walk back Biden’s remark.
“As the president said, our policy has not changed,” the statement said. “He reiterated our One China Policy and our commitment to peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait. He also reiterated our commitment under the Taiwan Relations Act to provide Taiwan with the military means to defend itself.”
Monday was not the first time Biden made similar remarks regarding China and Taiwan.
Last August, he promised that “we would respond” if there was an attack against a fellow member of NATO and then added, “same with Japan, same with South Korea, same with Taiwan.”
In October, he again told CNN’s Anderson Cooper that the U.S. would defend Taiwan from a Chinese attack, prompting the White House to hurriedly walk back his statement.
Monday’s remark was received with support as well as criticism.
“Strategic ambiguity is over. Strategic clarity is here,” Tweeted Matthew Kroenig, professor of government at Georgetown University. “This is the third time Biden has said this. Good. China should welcome this. Washington is helping Beijing to not miscalculate.”
“It is truly dangerous for the president to keep misstating U.S. policy toward Taiwan,” historian Stephen Wertheim wrote in a tweet. “How many more times will this happen?”
“The West’s robust response to Russian aggression in Ukraine could serve to deter China from invading Taiwan, but Biden’s statement risks undoing the potential benefit and instead helping to bring about a Taiwan conflict,” he added. “Self-injurious and entirely unforced.”
Biden also unveiled the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity (IPEF), a trade agreement signed by the U.S. and 12 Asian nations.
The agreement appeared to many like another move to cut off China from regional trade pacts and supply chains in Washington’s strategic competition with Beijing.
See what others are saying: (CNN) (The New York Times) (The South China Morning Post)
Russia Takes Over 900 Azovstal Fighters Prisoner as Mariupol Surrenders
Ukraine said the soldiers successfully completed their mission, but the fall of Mariupol represents a strategic win for Putin.
Azovstal Waves the White Flag
Russia’s foreign ministry announced on Wednesday that it had captured 959 Ukrainians from the Azovstal steelworks, where besieged soldiers have maintained the last pocket of resistance in Mariupol for weeks.
A ministry spokesperson said in a statement that 51 were being treated for injuries, and the rest were sent to a former prison colony in the town of Olenivka in a Russian-controlled area of Donetsk.
The defense ministry released videos of what it claimed were Ukrainian fighters receiving care at a hospital in the Russian-controlled town of Novoazovsk. In one, a soldier tells the camera he is being treated “normally” and that he is not being psychologically pressured, though it is unclear whether he is speaking freely.
It was unclear if any Ukrainians remained in Azovstal, but Denis Pushilin, the head of the self-proclaimed republic of Donetsk, said in a statement Wednesday that the “commanders of the highest level” were still hiding in the plant.
Previously, estimates put the number of soldiers inside Azovstal around 1,000.
Ukraine officially gave up Mariupol on Monday, when the first Azovstal fighters began surrendering.
Reuters filmed dozens of wounded Ukrainians being driven away in buses marked with the Russian pro-war “Z” symbol.
Ukraine’s deputy defense minister said in a Tuesday statement that the Ukrainian prisoners would be swapped in an exchange for captured Russians. But numerous Russian officials have signaled that the Ukrainian soldiers should be tried.
Mariupol Falls into Russian Hands
After nearly three months of bombardment that left Mariupol in ruins, Russia’s combat mission in the city has ended.
The sprawling complex of underground tunnels, caverns, and bunkers beneath Azovstal provided a defensible position for the Ukrainians there, and they came to represent the country’s resolve in the face of Russian aggression for many spectators.
Earlier this month, women, children, and the elderly were evacuated from the plant.
The definitive capture of Mariupol, a strategic port city, is a loss for Ukraine and a boon for Russia, which can now establish a land bridge between Crimea and parts of Eastern Ukraine controlled by Russian separatists. The development could also free up Russian troops around Mariupol to advance on the East, while additional reinforcements near Kharkiv descend from the north, potentially cutting off Ukrainian forces from the rest of the country.
The Ukrainian military has framed events in Mariupol as at least a partial success, arguing that the defenders of Azovstal completed their mission by tying down Russian troops and resources in the city and giving Ukrainians elsewhere more breathing room.
It claimed that doing so prevented Russia from rapidly capturing the city of Zaporizhzhia further to the west.
See what others are saying: (The Guardian) (BBC) (BBC)
Convoy of Up to 1,000 Vehicles Evacuates Refugees From Mariupol as Russian War Effort Stalls
Russia may have lost a third of its ground invasion force since the war began, according to British military intelligence.
Hundreds Make It Out Alive
A convoy of between 500 and 1,000 vehicles evacuating refugees from the southern port city of Mariupol arrived safely in the Ukrainian-controlled city of Zaporizhzhia on Saturday.
People have been trickling out of Mariupol for over two months, but the recent evacuation was the single biggest out of the city thus far. Russian troops, who control most of the city, did not allow the convoy to leave for days, but eventually, they relented.
The convoy first traveled to Berbyansky some 80 kilometers to the west, then stopped at other settlements before driving 200 kilometers northwest to Zaporizhzhia. Many refugees told reporters they took “secret detours” to avoid Russian checkpoints and feared every moment of the journey.
Nikolai Pavlov, a 74-year-old retiree, told Reuters he had lived in a basement for a month after his apartment was destroyed.
“We barely made it,” he said. “There were lots of elderly people among us… the trip was devastating. But it was worth it.”
63-year-old Iryna Petrenko also said she had stayed in Mariupol initially to take care of her 92-year-old mother, who subsequently died.
“We buried her next to her house, because there was nowhere to bury anyone,” she said.
Putin’s Plans Go Poorly
In Mariupol, Ukrainian fighters continue to hold the Azovstal steelworks, the only part of the city still under Ukrainian control.
On Sunday, a video emerged appearing to show a hail of projectiles bursting into white, brightly burning munitions over the factory.
The pro-Russian separatist who posted it on Telegram wrote, “If you didn’t know what it is and for what purpose – you could say that it’s even beautiful.”
Turkey is trying to negotiate an evacuation of wounded Ukrainians from the factory, but neither Russia nor Ukraine have agreed to any plan.
After nearly three months of war, Mariupol has been left in ruins, with thousands of civilians reportedly dead.
“In less than 3 month, Mariupol, one of Ukraine’s fastest developing & comfortable cities, was reduced into a heap of charred ruins smelling death, with thousands of people standing in long breadlines and selling their properties out to buy some food. Less than three months,” Illia Ponomarenko, a reporter for The Kyiv Independent, tweeted.
On Sunday, the United Kingdom’s defense ministry estimated that Russia has likely lost a third of its ground invasion forces since the war began.
Moscow is believed to have deployed as many as 150,000 troops in Ukraine.
The ministry added that Russian forces in Eastern Ukraine have “lost momentum” and are “significantly behind schedule.” Moreover, it said Russia failed to achieve substantial territorial gains over the last month while sustaining “consistently high levels of attrition.”
“Under the current conditions, Russia is unlikely to dramatically accelerate its rate of advance over the next 30 days,” the ministry concluded.
Sweden also signaled on Sunday that it will join Finland in applying for NATO membership.