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Thai Protesters Defy Government Crackdown

The arrests of two protest leaders seem to have galvanized support for the pro-democracy movement.

By , the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy.
Thousands of anti-government protesters and students protest at the Ratchaprasong Intersection in central Bangkok on October 15, 2020.
Thousands of anti-government protesters and students protest at the Ratchaprasong Intersection in central Bangkok on October 15, 2020. Getty Images

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: Thailand’s pro-democracy protesters continue to defy an emergency decree, the European Union wants the United Kingdom to keep negotiating on a Brexit trade deal, and Kyrgyzstan’s president resigns.

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Emergency Decree Fails to Deter Bangkok Protesters

Thousands of protesters are set to join a rally in Bangkok today in continued defiance of emergency laws designed to blunt an unprecedented protest movement that has been building since July.

The rallies are seen as a direct challenge to the power of not just Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, but to the reign of King Maha Vajiralongkorn, who returned to Thailand from his residence in Germany this week.

In a bid to crack down on dissent, laws announced by emergency decree in the early hours of Thursday morning banned mass gatherings and prohibited the publication of news that might “incite fear” among the public. Police took things a step further by arresting two of the protest leaders, Parit Chiwarak and Arnon Nampa. Their arrests only seemed to galvanize protesters who have added their leaders’ immediate release to the list of demands.

The demands. Protesters have been demanding democratic reforms, including a new constitution, new parliamentary elections, and an end to intimidation of political dissidents. As the protests grow, reforming the monarchy to dilute the power of the king has become a central demand.

The view from the ground. Writing in Foreign Policy, Tyler Roney joined protesters on the streets of Bangkok yesterday where the announcement of the emergency decree was greeted with “boos, jeers, and three-finger salutes, a gesture taken from the Hunger Games films that has become a symbol of Thailand’s pro-democracy struggle.”

“Without elections, Prayuth’s resignation, or a rewriting of the constitution, there is no clear way forward for either the military-controlled government or the protesters,” Roney writes.

What We’re Following Today

Europe wants to keep talking. The ball is in Britain’s court today after a communiqué issued by EU leaders yesterday called on Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government to “make the necessary moves to make an agreement possible.” Accepting the invitation to continue trade talks into the coming weeks would represent a  reversal for Johnson’s government after a self-imposed deadline for the conclusion of negotiations expired this week. On Twitter, the British chief negotiator David Frost said he was “surprised by suggestion that to get an agreement all future moves must come from U.K.”

Turmoil in Kyrgyzstan. Kyrgyz President Sooronbai Jeenbekov resigned on Thursday after a week of unrest that followed disputed parliamentary elections on Oct. 4. Jeenbekov said he was leaving his post in order to bring an end to the country’s political crisis. “I am not clinging to power. I do not want to go down in the history of Kyrgyzstan as a president who allowed bloodshed and shooting on its people,” he said.

Jeenbekov has been replaced by Sadyr Zhaparov, who had only been named prime minister earlier this week. Zhaparov was freed from jail by supporters just last week where he had been serving a sentence for kidnapping another politician in 2013. According to Kyrgyzstan’s constitution, an election for a new president must take place within three months and, as interim president, Zhaparov should be barred from running.

COVID-19 on the campaign trail. After U.S. President Donald Trump became the victim of a White House coronavirus outbreak earlier this month, it’s now the turn of his Democratic Party opponents to deal with the virus. On Thursday, the communications director for vice presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris tested positive for the virus, leading the Biden campaign to cancel some of Harris’s travel plans. It also emerged that a member of the flight crew on a jet Joe Biden had travelled on had also tested positive.

Former Mexican defense minister detained in Los Angeles. Salvador Cienfuegos, who served as Mexico’s defense minister from 2012-2018 has been detained on charges of drug trafficking and money laundering in Los Angeles. His arrest was reportedly carried out by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, the anti-narcotics agency. Cienfuegos becomes the second former Mexican minister to be detained in the United States after ex-public security minister Genaro García Luna was arrested for taking bribes from drug cartels in 2019.

Keep an Eye On

Sweden’s defense spending. The Swedish government has proposed a 40 percent increase in military spending over the next five years as “a consequence of Russia’s actions” in the region, according to Swedish Defense Minister Peter Hultqvist. The move would see a $3.1 billion overall spending increase by 2025. As part of the plans, Sweden aims to increase the number of its military personnel from 60,000 to 90,000 and double the size of its military draft to 8,000 conscripts per year.

Weekend elections. National elections take place on three continents this weekend.

In New Zealand, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is hoping her handling of the country’s coronavirus epidemic propels her Labour party to victory in parliamentary elections on Saturday. A recent poll shows her party a full 15 points ahead of the rival National party.

In Guinea, 82-year-old President Alpha Condé is seeking a third term, although he will need 50 percent of Sunday’s vote to win outright.

Also on Sunday, Bolivians vote for a new president. Polls show ousted President Evo Morales’s ideological successor Luis Arce in the lead. Arce will need to gain more than 40 percent of the vote as well as have a ten point lead over his closest rival to avoid a November runoff.

Odds and Ends

Bolsonaro ally caught with his pants down. A Brazilian senator was caught hiding money in an unusual place during a raid on his residence by federal authorities last Wednesday. During a search for misappropriated coronavirus funds, police found approximately $5,200 hidden on the senator’s person—specifically between his buttocks. Senator Chico Rodrigues, an ally of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, resigned his post Thursday in the wake of the corruption scandal.

Speaking to reporters, Bolsonaro attempted to distance himself from his former colleague. “If a government official does something wrong, it has nothing to do with me. Or better yet, it has to do with me when I send the police after him,” Bolsonaro said.

That’s it for today. 

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Colm Quinn is the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @colmfquinn