Rubber Duck Politics

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Thai authorities sentenced a man to jail for two years for peddling calendars featuring rubber ducks in monarchic regalia because insulting the Thai king is illegal in the southeast Asian country. As the BBC noted, the rubber duck happens to be a symbol of the pro-democracy movement in the country, leading critics to charge that the police were enforcing the law not to protect the head of state per se, but to crack down on free speech.

“I feel it’s just a duck, why does it have to be so serious?” said the convicted man Narathorn Chotmankongsin, 26, in an interview with WAtoday, an online newspaper based in Western Australia. Chotmankongsin, who is now out on bail pending appeal, added: “The content is not rude, it didn’t name anyone. And it could be positive. Unless you put your interpretation into it (it’s just cute ducks).”

Such moves are part of a trend that dissident Thais say represents the government’s response to civil unrest stemming from inflation, higher living costs, stagnant wages, and other economic issues as well as political dissatisfaction. Last year, as Voice of America reported, for example, protesters took to the streets in the capital of Bangkok and other cities to voice their displeasure over the country’s constitutional court allowing Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha to remain in office, as he has been since taking over in a coup in 2014.

Three years later he and his military allies issued a new constitution limiting the prime minister to eight years in office. Opponents said that limit was reached in 2022, but the court ruled that he had not yet served his full term as the constitution took effect in 2017, and he could remain in office until elections are held this May – in which he is standing again for PM.

Now the constitution does not assure pro-democracy activists that the May election will be free and fair. The election rules are designed to favor the large establishment parties like Prayuth’s United Thai Nation political party, noted Bloomberg.

Security forces have clashed with these activists, especially those under the age of 18 who have been among the most vocal critics of the junta’s rule as well as the unfettered power of King Maha Vajiralongkorn, who assumed the throne when his father died in 2016. Almost 300 minors are now in jail and face years in prison, often on charges of sedition or insulting the monarchy, according to Amnesty International.

The crackdown has quieted the youth movement. “The valiant effort young Thais sustained for two years against an unwavering regime has left many of them feeling burnt out,” the Diplomat wrote.

While the youth protest movement may be quiet for the moment, they likely won’t be silent during the elections.

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