Why Thailand’s Protesters Are Up in Arms Against the Monarchy

Why Thailand’s Protesters Are Up in Arms Against the Monarchy
A gathering of pro-democracy protesters in Bangkok, Thailand, Aug, 16, 2020 (AP photo by Gemunu Amarasinghe).
Thai students and other activists have staged a series of escalating pro-democracy protests in recent months, drawing some of the biggest crowds since the country’s last coup in 2014. Their demands initially focused on constitutional reforms and new elections, after last year’s vote was widely seen as skewed toward a party aligned with the military. The demonstrators also called for an impartial investigation into the apparent abductions and murders of anti-government activists living abroad. Several Thai dissidents who had been living in Laos disappeared last year, while the bodies of others were found in the Mekong River, disemboweled and filled with concrete. But as the recent uprising has grown in size and spread across the country, reaching educational institutions and other locales in smaller towns far away from Bangkok, the protesters have increasingly taken aim at the third rail of Thai politics: the monarchy. The Thai king is technically a constitutional figurehead, but in reality, the royal palace has long played a major role in government. Those who criticize it risk long jail sentences under Thailand’s harsh lese majeste law, as well as a recent internet security law, the Computer-Related Crime Act, passed during military rule in 2016. And many Thais genuinely revere the royal family. Yet despite the real threat of punishment—several activists have been arrested, mainly on charges of sedition, and royalists held a counter-protest in late August—pro-democracy activists continue to call for change. Indeed, the possibility for discussion and even reform of the monarchy in Thailand seems greater now than at any time in decades. But the potential for a violent crackdown also appears greater than at any time since 2010, when security forces used lethal force to suppress anti-government demonstrations, killing at least 80 people. Several soldiers were also killed in the violence. Why are protesters now focusing on the monarchy? For one thing, there is a stark contrast between the current king, Maha Vajiralongkorn, and his late father, Bhumibol Adulyadej. Vajiralongkorn, whose tabloid-worthy lifestyle is well-known inside Thailand despite not appearing in any Thai news outlet, lacks the moral authority and popularity that his father accrued over seven decades on the throne. Vajiralongkorn’s relative unpopularity, not to mention the fact that he reportedly spends most of his time in Germany, makes it easier for activists to question his legitimacy, and undermines royalist propaganda. Vajiralongkorn has added to public discontent by being more open about wielding political power. Prior to last year’s elections, he intervened directly to prevent his sister from running for prime minister and forced changes to the constitution related to royal powers. Such moves undermined the fictitious yet powerful image of a king who remains above politics. The students’ anger was exacerbated by the daytime abduction and disappearance of Wanchalearm Satsaksit, a young Thai dissident living in Cambodia, on June 4. The BBC reported that Wanchalearm was on the phone with his sister when he was kidnapped, and she heard him yelling over the line, “I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe,” as armed men apparently grabbed him.

Younger Thais are rebelling not only against the political system but also against what they see as an anachronistic society, in which their views are not fully respected.

Importantly, many young Thais who joined the demonstrations this summer come from the country’s most prestigious schools. As James Row wrote recently, this is a sign that Thailand’s elite establishment, once largely pro-military and extremely supportive of the monarchy, is showing cracks. Younger Thais, in particular, appear to be rebelling not only against the political system but also against what they see as an anachronistic Thai society, in which their views are not fully respected. During the campaign ahead of last year’s elections, the progressive Future Forward party won the backing of a sizable percentage of Bangkok elites. Although Future Forward called for serious reforms to the military, it did not focus on the monarchy, since doing so would have been grounds for it to be dissolved and its leaders put in jail. The party was still dissolved by Thailand’s top court in February, probably just to silence it. Still, Future Forward’s reformist message helped lay the groundwork for demands by activists this summer for a more forthright debate about the monarchy. Unfortunately, many pro-monarchy elites have refused to engage with the demonstrators’ demands, including proposals to limit the king’s political power and restrict his access to the Crown Property Bureau, which controls around $30 billion worth of assets. Instead, royalists have accused the student demonstrators of being lomchao, or wanting to overthrow the king—a very severe lese majeste crime. Branding the protesters as lomchao gives legitimacy to the state, and could potentially embolden pro-military and pro-monarchy vigilantes to take a tougher line against the demonstrators. The Thai government has ramped up pressure on the activists in recent weeks, arresting key student leaders and harassing their families. In response to a legal threat from the Thai government, Facebook blocked access in the kingdom to a popular private Facebook group called Royalist Marketplace, which provided a platform for critical discussion of the monarchy. (Disclosure: Pavin Chachavalpongpun was the administrator of this group.) The group, which can still be accessed outside of Thailand, has around 1 million members. Facebook has said it will take legal action in the kingdom to challenge the Thai government’s demand. In response, the students have shown no sign of backing down. Two prominent activists, Anon Nampa and Panupong Jadnok, said they intend to go back to leading demonstrations after being released from jail this week. Major protests are in the works for the coming month across the country, including one on Sept. 19 that planners say will be the biggest yet. But the demonstrations are testing the patience of a government led by former military men not accustomed to compromise. Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, a former army chief who led the 2014 coup, warned ominously that the kingdom could be “engulfed in flames” due to political divisions. For now, the most realistic outcome of a prolonged standoff is the state using force to end the demonstrations. Still, the protest movement, combined with the king’s relative unpopularity and the fact that some of the demonstrators come from elite families, have opened the door to more frank conversations in Thailand about the monarchy. Indeed, the number of people willing to participate in a critical Facebook group on the monarchy is testament to the fact that such conversations are becoming less taboo. Soon after the old Royalist Marketplace group on Facebook was blocked in Thailand, a new one was set up to replace it, gaining more than a million members in a week. (Chachavalpongpun also administers this group.) Increasing access to the internet in Thailand also allows for more robust debate about the monarchy, as Thai authorities do not have the ability to monitor, block and filter content the way China does. Eventually, such growing openness, and the deepening splits in elite society, may combine to force a real reckoning with the heretofore untouchable Thai monarchy. Pavin Chachavalpongpun is an associate professor at the Kyoto University Center for Southeast Asian Studies. Joshua Kurlantzick is senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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