Thai student-protesters aim for ambitious political change

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FILE - In this Oct. 26, 2020, file photo, pro-democracy demonstrators march to the German Embassy in central Bangkok, Thailand. Fed up with an archaic educational system and enraged by the military's efforts to keep control over their nation, a student-led campaign has shaken Thailands ruling establishment with the most significant campaign for political change in years. (AP Photo/Gemunu Amarasinghe, File)

BANGKOK – He was only 7 when he saw his first military coup. He was 15 during the second. Now 21, he is among those at the front of Thailand's growing pro-democracy movement pushing for sweeping political reforms.

And because of his activities, Bunkueanun Paothong has been charged with crimes that could see him jailed for the rest of his life.

“I took a stand I know that would be risky,” Bunkueanun said. “I stand firm in my principles and beliefs. Because it’s the right thing for me to do.”

Fed up with an archaic educational system and enraged by the military's efforts to keep control over their nation, the student-led campaign that began earlier this year has shaken Thailand’s ruling establishment with the most significant campaign for political change in years.

The protesters have three main demands: They want Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha’s resignation; changes to a constitution that was drafted under military rule; and, most controversially, reforms to the constitutional monarchy.

Political protest is nothing new in Thailand, and its past 15 years have been defined by it. Whether it was the red-shirted supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra or his yellow-shirted conservative opponents, some group could be counted on every few years to seize an airport, occupy a government building or blockade a key road in a bid to topple the government.

And like clockwork, the courts or the military could be counted on to intervene. Prayuth, a former general, first came to power in a 2014 coup.

But never before have protesters made such open calls for the reform of the monarchy in a country where reverence for the royal institution is inculcated from birth and protected by a law that makes defaming senior royals punishable by prison. The calls have infuriated some, resonated with others and most certainly complicated any solution to the latest crisis.