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Police Arrest Leaders Of Student-Led Group That Challenges Thailand's Monarchy

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

To Thailand now, where police are arresting leaders of a largely student-led pro-democracy movement. They've been holding rallies calling for the military-backed government to step down and for reform of Thailand's monarchy. Michael Sullivan reports from Bangkok.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: On the night of Aug. 10, 21-year-old Panusaya Sithijirawattanakul's life changed forever.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PANUSAYA SITHIJIRAWATTANAKUL: (Non-English language spoken).

SULLIVAN: That's the night she got up on stage at Thammasat University to read a 10-point manifesto aimed at curbing the influence of Thailand's politically powerful monarchy - a third-year sociology student grabbing the third rail of Thai politics.

SITHIJIRAWATTANAKUL: I asked for it. I want to be the one who read that manifesto because I want to be the one to change thing in this country, and I think this is the chance to do that.

SULLIVAN: It's the first time in modern Thai history that the monarchy had been talked about publicly in a critical way, and it caught the military-backed government by surprise.

DAVID STRECKFUSS: The military government doesn't know how to approach or to address this new kind of threat.

SULLIVAN: David Streckfuss is the author of a book about the Thai monarchy and the laws written to shield it from public discussion. Those laws can land critics in jail for up to 15 years in a country where the symbiotic relationship between the military and the monarchy has existed for decades.

STRECKFUSS: The Thai state is not ideologically equipped to handle such a open confrontation over something they fought for decades to keep from public criticism or scrutiny.

SULLIVAN: And that, he says, makes the students' gambit risky if the government chooses to do more than arrest a few protest leaders. Thammasat student Panusaya says the decision to read the manifesto came easily.

SITHIJIRAWATTANAKUL: I think the monarchy has to be under law like everyone in this country.

SULLIVAN: As she sees it, limiting the power and role of the monarchy is the first step toward restoring real democracy in Thailand and new elections and a new constitution to replace the one drafted by the military in 2017. Her speech has drawn the ire of rabid royalists on social media, but she's not worried.

SITHIJIRAWATTANAKUL: I have a lot of defenders who help me with that kind of people, so I don't have to worry about it because I know that a lot of people agree with me.

SULLIVAN: That doesn't mean she doesn't need to worry. Nearly a dozen exiled critics of the monarchy and/or the military have gone missing in the past several years.

SITHIJIRAWATTANAKUL: I know that. I know that. I'm not stupid. And my head's tell me that it's too risky, saying things that's so harsh. But my heart's saying that I know it had to be done. So I listened to my heart more.

SULLIVAN: The youth-led pro-democracy demonstrations are gaining traction in a country where job prospects for graduating young people are bleak, in a country where the military-backed government's stewardship of the economy has drawn mixed reviews even before the coronavirus cratered the economy. The demonstrations are also drawing a broader audience in a country whose king is believed to be among the richest men in the world, a country where the richest 1% controls more than half the country's wealth. It's time, Panusaya says.

SITHIJIRAWATTANAKUL: Now is, like, a new era. It's our generation. And if you don't change that, then we will have to live like this forever, and we don't want that.

SULLIVAN: She says she's ready to go to jail or worse for her beliefs. An arrest warrant was issued for Panusaya on Wednesday. For NPR News, I'm Michael Sullivan in Bangkok.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.