An anti-government protester holds up a three-finger salute at a pro-democracy protest in Bangkok on August 16, 2020. Photo: AFP/Lillian Suwanrumpha

BANGKOK – At the largest student protest yet against Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha and his military-aligned coalition government, youthful speakers aired their democratic discontent on a range of touchy topics.

But after over six hours of sometimes hilarious, sometimes rageful, sometimes musical dissent, one taboo topic was hinted at but never directly touched by a series of closely stage-managed speakers: the monarchy.

An estimated 10,000 mainly youthful demonstrators gathered at Bangkok’s iconic Democracy Monument on Sunday to call for the coup-maker turned politician’s ouster, a new constitution and elections, and an end to official harassment of democracy activists.

Many anticipated the event would reiterate calls made at an August 10 protest at Bangkok’s Thammasart University, where stage speakers daringly pulled the monarchy into the fray with critiques of the current king’s power, role and behavior, and a call for royal reforms outlined in a ten-item list.

The list, issued by the United Front of Thammasat and Demonstration, includes calls to revoke a constitutional provision and law that bars accusations against the king, revocation of the Crown Property Act to make a clear division between the monarch’s and state’s assets, and investigations into the rash of recent killings of exiled anti-monarchists.  

The authors of the list said the demands did not intend to “topple” the monarchy, but rather were a “good faith” proposal to keep the institution “esteemed by the people within a democracy.” Those who aired the views, including most notably human rights lawyer Arnon Nampa, have been detained and released on bail on various charges, including sedition.

Human rights lawyer Arnon Nampa faces sedition charges over his protest stage call for royal reforms, Bangkok, August 16, 2020. Photo: Shawn W. Crispin/Asia Times

Arnon told reporters backstage at Sunday’s protest that he was not scared of the charges he faced and believed “new generation” King Vajiralongkorn has a more modern, different outlook than the previous reign and that the monarch would ultimately lend his support to the “people’s” call for Prayut’s removal and an end to military-dominated politics.

That view could explain why student leaders inexplicably called off a protest planned for Lumpini Park on August 12 while Vajiralongkorn was in the kingdom for a day to celebrate Queen Mother Sirikit’s birthday. The park is within earshot of the hospital where the elderly and ailing Sirikit is in residence.

It could also explain why stage speakers shied from directly mentioning the monarchy at Sunday’s rally, though some cryptically remarked that they had “lost their faith”, an anti-monarchy hashtag, among others, that have made viral rounds recently on Twitter.

Those same sentiments were seen on provocative tee-shirts and signboards worn and held anonymously by masked protestors in Sunday’s crowd. Soon after nightfall, a group of ten youths briefly paraded placards emblazoned with each of the ten royal reform demands along a crowded sidewalk, before slipping away into the darkness of a side alley.

Curiously, Vajiralongkorn has helped to create the more open space student activists are now exploiting when he ordered legal and government officials to stop using the lese majeste law, which allows for 15-year jail penalties for royal calumny and slight, against his perceived critics.

The law was used frequently to silence and detain critics during Prayut’s 2014-2019 coup regime, which oversaw the delicate transition from the deceased and widely revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej to Vajiralongkorn’s new reign. Since Vajiralongkorn’s intervention, Prayut’s regime has instead used sedition charges to threaten and penalize critics.

Thailand's King Vajiralongkorn is seen paying respects at the statue of King Rama I after signing the military-backed constitution in Bangkok on April 6, 2017. His formal coronation is due to be held on May 4.Photo: AFP / Lillian Suwanrumpha
Thailand’s King Vajiralongkorn is seen paying respects at the statue of King Rama I after signing the military-backed constitution in Bangkok on April 6, 2017. Photo: AFP/Lillian Suwanrumpha

It’s not clear, however, that is necessarily the monarch’s wish. One well-placed government official said that during the monarch’s one-day visit to the kingdom, where he presided over the swearing-in of a new Cabinet, that he was not bothered by the “children’s” protests and they should be allowed to air their views.  

Vajiralongkorn, who resides in Germany, is by now accustomed to certain media criticism. In recent months, the European media have descended on the hotel where the king has been locked down during the Covid-19 outbreak, with sometimes scathing critiques of his entourage and movements.

Germany’s Bild newspaper arguably started the paparazzi reporting trend after one of its photographers was sued under Swiss privacy laws for photographing Vajiralongkorn at an airport. The media glare has shone light on sensitive issues, including in regard to taxes and the disappearance of monarchy critics.

It’s still anyone’s guess, though, how far Thailand’s emboldened students will be allowed to test taboo boundaries before Prayut’s military-backed government pushes back with force, similar to his previous coup regime which brooked little to no dissent, particularly in regard to royal issues.

While Prayut has affirmed the students’ democratic right to protest so long as the monarchy is not violated, hardline army commander General Apirat Kongsompong, a staunch royalist and known Vajiralongkorn favorite, has suggested that those who criticize the royal institution are “diseased.”

It’s difficult to know if the former and current army commanders are now engaged in a “good cop, bad cop” routine, but most analysts agree that the Prayut-led government and Apirat-led military would close ranks in the blink of a royalist’s eye if given a message from the palace to more firmly quiet the anti-royal commotion.     

Authorities are already probing if the student protests have political group backing, as seen with previous “red” and “yellow” shirt self-reputed “pro-democracy” protest groups. The first rounds of student protests, staged before the Covid-19 outbreak, were mobilized in response to the February 21 court-ordered dissolution of the opposition Future Forward party.

Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit (C) and the same security guard (R) who watched over the August 15 student-led protest at Democracy Monument at the December 14, 2019 flash mob in front of a Bangkok shopping mall. Photo: Shawn W. Crispin/Asia Times

Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, the defunct party’s charismatic 41-year-old leader, was banned from politics last November on what many viewed as bogus charges. He and his now co-banned party leaders have been accused of harboring anti-monarchy sentiments, allegations they have denied.

Tellingly, perhaps, Nuruk Mapraneet, the Constitutional Court president judge who presided over the ruling was appointed in May to Vajiralongkorn’s advisory Privy Councillor, an appointment some analysts and diplomats viewed as a royal reward for eliminating a potential palace threat.  

Student protestors have since sharpened their message, often echoing Future Forward’s positions and complaints, including the need for constitutional reforms and questions over the legitimacy of a government emergency decree issued last year that allowed elite military units to be absorbed into the king’s personal guard.

Thanathorn, a billionaire scion of an auto parts conglomerate who now heads a social movement advocating for grass roots democracy, said in March that he supports the students’ right to protest, but serves no role in organizing or financing their activities, which have spread with dissident three-fingered salutes on campuses nationwide.

Yet there are certain Future Forward fingerprints on the student movement. For example, the onstage security guard at Sunday’s protest, ever watchful for snipers or other threats in the crowd, also provided personal security to Thanathorn at a flash mob protest staged in front of a Bangkok shopping mall against his ban from politics in December.

One government insider has suggested the movement could also have hidden backing from conservative royalist elements who lost out in the transition from Bhumibol to Vajiralongkorn and who likewise support reforms that would diminish the current king’s power and vest more authority in the royal court.

The insider points to former prime minister and trusted Bhumibol advisor Anand Panyarachun’s surprise attendance at and cordial meeting after with Thanathorn at a foreign press event last year as indication of the supposed, if not tenuous, connection.

Protesters at Democracy Monument during student-led protests in Bangkok, August 16, 2020. Photo: Shawn W. Crispin/Asia Times

Either way, the first mass mobilization of student protests since the 1970s are potently symbolic in Thailand’s historical context. Student-led protests in 1973 against then perceived as abusive military rule ended in tragedy on October 14, when the military and police opened fire on crowds. In that instance, Bhumibol served as final arbiter in pushing a then-military dictator into exile.

Three years later, on October 6, 1976, right-wing paramilitaries massacred leftist students at Thammasat University the day after they staged a mock play, which by some accounts included a controversial portrayal of then-Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn. A Bhumibol-endorsed royalist rightist government replaced a short-lived democratic administration after that brutal crackdown.  

As a new generation of energized students takes to the streets against Prayut’s military-aligned government, it’s not clear yet if the kingdom is on a similar collision course. Now as then, there are likely more forces at work than are openly apparent on the students’ stage. And unlike before, the monarchy is part of the democratic controversy, not hovering graciously above.