Young Thais Who Questioned Monarchy Look to Win Seats in Parliament

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PATHUM THANI (Reuters) – Chonthicha “Lookkate” Jangrew goes door to door asking people to vote in Thailand’s election on May 14, even though she could face jail time for charges of sedition or defaming king in unprecedented protests that took place in 2020.

The 30-year old is one of over a dozen student activists who have taken their cause, which was once taboo, from the streets and onto the ballot boxes as candidates for the election.

They bring the role of the monarchy in the society to the forefront. The constitution declares King Maha Vajiralongkorn to be revered and any insult towards the monarchy, known as lese-majeste is punishable with up to 15 years imprisonment.

Lookkate’s progressive Move Forward Party, which campaigns to reduce the severity of royal insult punishments and the way it is applied, has pledged to change - but not abolish - these laws.

Lookkate, who was on a campaign in Pathum Thai, a province on the northern outskirts of Bangkok, told Reuters that if she wanted to change things in Thailand, she couldn't rely on only street movements or just parliament.

She said that both paths must move forward in tandem.

In Thailand, the 2020 demonstrations began as a protest against the military dominance of politics after a 2014 coup d'état and a disputed vote five years later. They questioned the supremacy the monarchy.

The protesters criticized what they called a "disordered power nexus" between the military, the palace and that justifies repeated military interventions against elected governments.

The military has said that it will only interfere in civil politics when necessary to save the country from chaos. It has also ruled out involvement in any election. The palace doesn't comment on politics.

Hundreds of people were arrested, and criminal cases are still pending in the courts.

Lookkate claimed she had 28 criminal cases filed against her. This includes two lese majeste charges, which would terminate her parliamentary career should she win a position. A person convicted of a crime is barred from the legislature.

The biggest change in decades

Many of the issues raised by the youth movement are now mainstream, and include calls for the amendment of lese majeste legislation.

Thai Lawyer for Human Rights has compiled records that show at least 240 individuals have been subjected to the laws since protests began.

Kanokrat Lertchoosakul is a political scientist from Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University, who closely monitors the youth movement.

Kanokrat stated that the protests brought issues like LGBT rights and ending military conscription to the forefront.

Rangsiman Roma, spokesman for Move Forward Party, said that the party would be a good match for the youth who participated in the 2020 protests. The protests were against the military's attempts to constitutionally cement its role in politics.

He said that the issues on which they campaigned, such as changing the Constitution or amending the Lese Majeste Law, were aligned to party policies.

Kanokrat, however, said that the party has at least 20 candidates and many more linked to the youth movement.

Kanokrat stated that there are at least three parties pro-democracy in which young activists play various roles.

The involvement of young activists, according to Prajak Kongkirati, a political analyst at Thammasat university said that mainstream politics has seen the most significant change in decades.

He said that they had energized the progressive left and at the same triggered the rise of the right-wing royalist Thai Pakdee party which campaigns on the toughening of the lese majeste laws.

Prajak stated that the political spectrum had not been so broad for 30 years. "We have an actual progressive left which is connected to street politics, and a far right party that responds."

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

He said that the most we could do is symbolically express our unhappiness. "We need the help of the people in order to democratically grant us power to make change."

Lookkate expressed her hope that the young people's presence in politics will at least bring about a fairer system in which the old power brokers know they can no longer ignore the results of votes they do not like.

She said, "I don’t think it will be as easy as it was before. If the people take the streets again it will go a lot further than in 2020."