- 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)
First Person Charged Under Hong Kong National Security Law Found Guilty of Terrorism and Inciting Secession
Dozens more are awaiting trial for breaking the controversial National Security Law, which is aimed at protecting Chinese sovereignty at the cost of basic freedoms within Hong Kong.
First Conviction Under National Security Law
The first person to be charged under Hong Kong’s extremely controversial National Security Law was found guilty of his crimes Tuesday morning.
A judge ruled that Tong Ying-kit was guilty of both terrorism and inciting secession after the 24-year-old failed to stop at a police checkpoint while on his motorcycle last July, which resulted in him eventually riding into police. At the same time, he was carrying a flag that said “Liberate Hong Kong, Revolution of Our Times.”
According to Justice Esther Toh, that phrase alone was capable of inciting others to commit succession, she also that added that Tong understood that the flag had secessionist meaning in an effort to set aside doubts that Tong understood the flag’s inherent meaning.
Yamini Mishra, Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific Regional Director said,“The conviction of Tong Ying-kit is a significant and ominous moment for human rights in Hong Kong.”
“Today’s verdict underlines the sobering fact that expressing certain political opinions in the city is now officially a crime, potentially punishable by life in jail,” she added.
More Convictions Expected Sparking Fear Over Erosion of Rights
A long string of convictions will likely follow Tong’s, as over 100 people have been arrested under the ambiguous law that criminalizes many forms of freedom of expression under the guise of protecting Chinese sovereignty. Of those arrested, 60 are currently awaiting trial, including dozens of pro-democracy politicians who have been accused of subversiveness for their calls to block the government’s agenda in the legislature.
That has drawn particular concern among international critics who fear the precedent that will be set once it’s clear to politicians that failing to rubber-stamp the Communist Party’s agenda will result in prison terms.
It’s widely expected that as more people are found guilty, the few remaining protections of the city’s Basic Law, a British common law-inspired mini-constitution, will be completely eroded.
See what others are saying: (The New York Times) (CNN) (BBC)
Tunisian President Fires Prime Minister, Suspends Parliament Over Deadlock and COVID-19 Response
President Kais Saied claims his actions are constitutional and have the support of the military, which has already blocked off government buildings. His opponents, however, call the move little more than a coup.
President Makes Massive Changes to Government
Tunisia’s government received a major shakeup after President Kais Saied fired the Prime Minister and froze parliament late Sunday.
The move, according to Saied, was meant to break years of parliamentary deadlock between Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi and various political parties that have sturggled to find common ground. However, the timing comes just after a massive protest over how the government has handled the COVID-19 pandemic turned violent earlier on Sunday.
Either way, the move risks sparking a confrontation between Saied —who is backed by the army — and various political parties that view his actions as a coup.
The President’s actions have proven cotnroversial. Despite that, he has widepsread support after being elected in 2019 on a platform to fight corrupt politicians.
After the announcement, tens of thousands have taken to the streets in support of his decision to dismiss the Prime Minister and parliament, with many cheering as he appeared among the crowd Sunday night.
In recent months, anger at the ruling government has only increased as many feel the ruling coalition, largely made up of the Islamist Ennahda (“Renaissance”) party, have been ineffective.
It’s a common belief in Tunisia that Ennahda’s rule, alongside its tenuous coalition, helped exacerbate problems caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, which led to the economy shrinking by 8% as tourism plummeted.
One of the President’s supporters told Reuters and other outlets during Sunday’s demonstration, “We are here to protect Tunisia. We have seen all the tragedies under the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood.”
He mentioned the Muslim Brotherhood, which had a strong presence in Egpyt after the Arab Spring, becuase Ennahda has longstanding relationship with the group, although it has sought to distance itself as a more moderate political group over the last few years.
Now, for their part, the ruling coalition has argued that Saied’s move is clearly unconstitutional. Rached Ghannouchi, leade of Ennahda and Parliamentary Speaker, said that he is “against gathering all powers in the hands of one person.” His position isn’t without supporters eithers. Both sides have already gathered throughout the capital and have thrown rocks at each other.
Legalities of Article 80
The question across many minds is whether or not Saied’s actions are actually constitutional.
He claims that under Article 80 of the constitution, he can fire the Prime Minister, suspend parliament for 30 days, and appoint a premier to rule — all of which is true.
However, in order to do that, the Prime Minister and the Parliamentary Speaker need to be consulted; something Parliamentary Speaker Ghannouchi said was never done. It’s unclear what Mechichi’s position is as he’s stayed inside his home all day, though the army says he is not under any kind of arrest.
In addition to those requirements, a Constitutional Court needs to approve the move, and one hasn’t been set up. As the German Foregin Office put it on Monday morning, it seems like Saied is relying on “a rather broad interpretation of the constitution.”
International observers hope a solution will soon be made to keep what seems to be the last functional democracy to come from the Arab Spring from devolving into civil war or dictatorship.
See what others are saying: (The Washington Post) (Reuters) (BBC)
South Korean President Makes BTS Official Presidential Envoys
The position is largely ceremonial but will be used by the government to help give a friendly and popular face to national and international initiatives spearheaded by Seoul.
The K-pop band BTS will be adding to its list of global impacts this year after South Korean President Moon Jae-in appointed its members as Presidential Envoys on Wednesday.
The role will include attending international conferences such as the United Nations General Assembly in September.
At these events, BTS will perform “various activities to promote international cooperation in solving global challenges, such as improving the environment, eliminating poverty and inequality, and respecting diversity,” according to Park Kyung-mee, a Blue House spokesperson.
The band has already appeared at U.N. conferences multiple times over the last few years.
Just last year, the group gave a message of hope and reassurance through the U.N. during the COVID-19 pandemic. Prior appearances at the U.N. have been either as part of U.N. organizations or as private citizens.
Wednesday’s appointment will make them official representatives of South Korea, although they won’t actually engage in any direct diplomacy and instead will be used to promote the country’s ongoing efforts in youth-related projects.
BTS’ success, alongside prior and current K-pop groups, has remained a masterclass of soft diplomacy by the Korean government. For decades, the Korean government has cultivated promoting cultural aspects abroad in the hopes of generating more interest in the country. There are hopes that such efforts will encourage more tourism as well as an elevated image when consumers consider Korean-made products.
Such efforts, beyond cultivating K-pop and raising its stars as semi-official government symbols, also include helping fund Korean restaurants abroad as well as free Korean-language classes taught by Professors of some of Korea’s most prestigious schools.
The news comes as BTS’ newest single, “Permission to Dance,” quickly took the #1 spot on the Billboard top 100. BTS is also partnering with YouTube to promote a Permission to Dance challenge on YouTube Shorts that will begin tomorrow and end on August 4.
Fans will be encouraged to replicate dance moves from the music video, and the group’s favorite clips will be put into a compilation made by them.