BANGKOK – At a small, rain-soaked pro-democracy rally in Thailand’s north-eastern city of Nakhorn Ratchasima in early October, three young women staged a performance entitled “Who Killed the People?”
Appearing first as a trio of anonymous figures bound together by tangled cords, through silent dance and mime their roles emerged: monarch, military and people. In the play’s denouement, “the military” killed “the people” – invoking the massacres of pro-democracy protesters in 1973, 1976, 1992 and 2010 – while the third character struck a regal pose and waved to the crowd.
The “monarch” then wrapped the corpse in a Thai flag and deposited her among the audience.
In a country where public discussion of the monarchy was taboo until just a few months ago, this performance was one of innumerable examples of the creativity and fearlessness of Thai youth in pressing for change as part of the protest movement that has rattled the kingdom since July.
It was also an encapsulation of the protesters’ narrative: Thailand’s ruling establishment, including the monarchy, is oppressive; in opposing this establishment, the protesters are heirs to a tradition of resistance to autocracy and dictatorship; and their struggle is a matter of life and death.
Events have unfolded incredibly fast. Earlier this year, a burgeoning student-led pro-democracy movement had been energized by the judicial dissolution of the progressive Future Forward Party, a new formation which captured some six million votes in the 2019 general election.
The pandemic soon hamstrung the movement but, after lockdown was lifted in June, protests began to regain momentum, further galvaniazed by the enforced disappearance of an exiled activist in Cambodia.
Protesters demanded the resignation of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha, leader of the 2014 coup d’état who remained in office following the 2019 elections; a new constitution reflecting popular participation to replace the 2017 charter drafted by the junta’s appointees; and a fresh general election.
A new chapter opened on 3 August when Anon Nampa, a human rights lawyer, publicly called for bringing the king under the constitution. A week later, at another rally, student Panusaya “Rung” Sithijirawattanakul read a detailed ten-point manifesto on reforming the Thai monarchy.
Since these earthshaking events, this demand has shifted from the edges of a quixotic quest – what protest leaders called a “dream” at first – to the movement’s core. Unimaginable just a few months ago, the call for reform is an unvarnished expression of the legitimacy conflict that has beset Thailand since the absolute monarchy ended in 1932, namely: who is sovereign, the people or the king?
The Nakhorn Ratchasima rally was one in a series staged in the provinces leading up to a major demonstration planned for Bangkok on October 14, in part to commemorate the 1973 student-led uprising that brought down a corrupt military dictatorship. Several of the speakers were high school students, who have imbued the movement with much of its verve and indignation, directed especially against the sclerotic educational system.
The range of issues addressed on stage reflected how the movement has fused political and cultural issues. Topics included everything from the need for safe and affordable public transport to the harmony of democracy, feminism and gender equality; from authoritarianism and corruption to class discrimination in schools; and from abuse of conscripts in the military to the need for constitutional change and monarchical reform.
The common denominator, expressed in both the event’s style and its substance, was the imperative of overturning the rigid hierarchies that characterize Thai politics and society – and rejecting the servility and deference inherent in royalist nationalism.
Coming at the King
It was inevitable that the monarchy’s role would change after the 70-year reign of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, or Rama IX, the ninth ruler of the Chakri dynasty. But even after his death in October 2016, this change was difficult to envision largely because his reign had come to define the Thai monarchy in the popular imagination.
The palace was weak and subordinate to the military when he ascended the throne as a teenager, but in alliance with the military and the business elite, King Bhumibol worked hard to restore the institution’s power and prestige. From the late 1970s to the 2006 coup d’état, the monarchy achieved new heights of moral authority and influence.
This period represented the Bhumibol consensus, an era of royalist hegemony with three main characteristics: it was driven by elites and their interests; distribution of power and benefits was hierarchical and clientelist, rather than egalitarian; and it was authoritarian, with a strong moralistic bent.
The unraveling of the Bhumibol consensus began before the 2006 coup that ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, whose electoral prowess stood as an implicit challenge to the monarchy, and picked up pace as the king’s health declined in his final decade.
As Thaksin’s parties continued to dominate elections, officers orchestrated another coup, in 2014, leading to five years of military rule, a new constitution (Thailand’s twentieth) designed to limit elected authority, and a stilted 2019 general election that resulted in the junta’s top leaders remaining in power. An unspoken rationale for the coup was for the junta to preside over the royal succession.
Many observers of Thai politics anticipated that the reign of Bhumibol’s only son, King Maha Vajiralongkorn, would coincide with a waning of royal prestige, not least because Thais had already formed opinions about the crown prince’s character; his mother once described him as a “Don Juan” and he has been married four times.
Since ascending the throne, Rama X has acted repeatedly to aggrandize himself, for example, requiring changes to the 2017 constitution – after it was approved in a referendum – to facilitate his rule from abroad, forbidding his older sister from running for political office, and taking personal control of the Crown Property Bureau’s vast wealth. He has spent most of his reign in Germany.
The October 14 rally in Bangkok marked a turning point, bringing the monarchy directly into the fray. A royal motorcade carrying the queen and the king’s son took an unanticipated detour through an area where demonstrators were gathered. The protesters were non-violent, but they jeered the procession, some shouting “My fucking taxes!”
This incident, which scandalized royalists, served as a pretext for the government to declare a “serious state of emergency”; three people were later charged with “threatening the queen’s liberty”, which carries a sentence of sixteen years to life in prison. Two days later, the Border Patrol Police deployed water cannons against peaceful protesters in central Bangkok.
The images of students armed with umbrellas hosed down by dyed water laced with chemical irritants won the movement the public’s sympathy. Defying the ban on demonstrations, protesters rallied almost every day, attracting ever larger crowds. The government rescinded the serious state of emergency after only a week.
Since then, protests have repeatedly targeted the royal institution. On October 26, tens of thousands marched to the German embassy, urging investigation of the king’s activities in Germany, while on November 8, demonstrators were stopped by the police as they attempted to deliver their letters of grievance at the Grand Palace.
The following week, thousands of protesters at the Democracy Monument turned their backs on a royal motorcade, raising the three-finger salute (a gesture of defiance borrowed from the Hunger Games film series, which has become a symbol of the protests) and singing the national anthem. On November 18, graffiti left at a protest scene in front of the national police headquarters insulted the monarchy in profane terms.
Protest leaders declared their intention to rally at the Crown Property Bureau office on November 24 but, in light of heavy security deployments, changed their target to the Siam Commercial Bank, in which the king is the largest shareholder. Speakers outside the bank’s headquarters that night criticized the monarch’s expansive and opaque financial holdings.
Five days later, they rallied in front of the 11th Infantry Regiment base to highlight the king’s assumption of direct control of key Bangkok military units.
The sudden emergence of a popular, youth-led movement questioning the role of the palace in Thai politics is of epoch-making significance. Royalist nationalism has been the cornerstone of Thailand’s political order for decades, enshrined in successive constitutions as “the democratic system with the king as head of state.”
The state portrays the monarchy as one of the kingdom’s three pillars, along with nation and religion. A movement to place the monarchy within a framework of accountability threatens the prevailing political order – especially the generals and oligarchs who most benefit from it.
The Prayut government has struggled to handle the protests. Apart from blocking protesters from reaching certain symbolic locations, authorities have so far permitted demonstrations to proceed, focusing their energy on heaping charges on the main leaders but also granting them bail. Its only sop to the movement has been to allow parliament to consider amending the constitution.
Few, however, are optimistic that these deliberations will result in substantive change. With the junta-appointed senate in effect wielding a veto, many see the process as a charade aimed at preserving the status quo rather than accommodating demands for change.
In the face of increasingly strident and unfiltered public denunciations of the monarchy, the government is shifting from a permissive approach to a firmer, more suppressive strategy. On November 19, Prime Minister Prayut stressed that “all laws and all articles” would be brought to bear on the protesters – a clear indication that charges under Section 112 of the Criminal Code, the lèse-majesté law that carries a penalty of three to 15 years, could be revived.
Since then, at least 33 people, mostly protest leaders, have been summoned to face charges under this law, including a sixteen-year-old. In June, Prayuth acknowledged that the law had been in abeyance since late 2017 at the “merciful” king’s request, leading many to wonder who is responsible for the sudden reversal in policy.
Meanwhile, the palace has undertaken an atypical public relations offensive. The king came back from Germany on October 10 for an unusually long sojourn in his domain.
Various religious and ceremonial duties have afforded opportunities for the royal family to greet their ardent supporters. These stage-managed events are a departure for the king, whose persona during his normally brief visits to the kingdom had so far been austere and aloof.
The campaign suggests a concerted effort to rally royalists and improve the monarch’s image. But the king’s well-publicized words of encouragement to prominent ultra-royalists during some of these events, and statements appearing to take sides in the political conflict, have done nothing to soothe tensions. These public appearances stand little chance of swaying the protesters.
Conservative Thais, however, are unnerved by the demands for monarchical reform and, most recently, the open discussion of republicanism. Reactions have often been frantic. Given the royalists’ belief that love of the monarchy is an essential trait of “Thainess”, they blame foreign interference for the protests.
On October 27, a small group demonstrated in front of the U.S. embassy, accusing Washington of waging “hybrid war” on Thailand; signs held by protesters singled out the conspiracy theorists’ bête noire, George Soros. Even Prime Minister Prayut has hinted that malevolent foreign forces are instigating the protests, though he has offered no evidence.
Royalists rail against those they call “nation haters” and have urged reactionary measures. Some have advocated for social sanctions against protesters, such as denying them employment or asking parents to disown their rebellious children.
On November 9, a group under the banner of the People’s Network to Protect the Royal Institution delivered letters to the prime minister’s office and the army commander calling on the government to “shut down” the country in the monarchy’s defense, which many interpreted as a demand for a coup.
The leader of the Thai Pakdee (Loyal Thai) group, former politician Warong Dechgitvigrom, even suggested that absolute monarchy should be temporarily restored as a way out of the crisis.
The fevered royalist response points to the moral dimension of the conflict in Thai society. Under King Bhumibol, the Theravada Buddhist notion of the king as a future Buddha and perfect being was revived in the service of royalist nationalism.
As Patrick Jory writes in Thailand’s Theory of the Monarchy (2016), the egalitarianism inherent in democratic politics “posed a mortal threat” to a political order based on hierarchy and deference. As a result, those who challenge the status quo “have been represented by their royalist opponents as morally reprehensible.”
Religious undertones impart an unpredictable and explosive dynamic to the current moment. Many older Thais who came of age in the heyday of King Bhumibol’s reign internalized the link between hierarchy and morality, and are disconcerted at demands for change. Still others, especially those who benefit most from the status quo, are furious. To royalists, those who demand monarchical reform are not just disloyal but heretical.
In late October, the arch-royalist and retired General Dr. Rianthong Nanna, told a reporter that it was “natural” for loyal Thais to use violence against the monarchy’s critics.
Demonization of opponents and casual justifications for brutality highlight the risk of violence looming over Thailand as a new generation, impervious to the reverence their elders are accustomed to, refuses to back down. As tensions rise, there is a growing possibility of miscalculation, inadvertent confrontation or even acts of provocation that authorities could use to justify a crackdown.
The pro-democracy protests have been overwhelmingly peaceful, particularly compared to earlier waves of mass demonstrations. But the logic of non-violent social movements does not preclude violent outcomes, and the risk of violence has grown significantly since pro-monarchy counter-demonstrators have started taking to the streets in recent weeks, often organizing rallies in proximity to the pro-democracy gatherings.
On November 17, near parliament, police retreated from their position between the two groups, allowing for violent scuffles. More than 50 people were treated for injuries, mostly related to inhalation of tear gas, but at least six people were shot (none fatally) by unidentified gunmen.
Street protests alone will not upend the status quo. The protesters achieve leverage only when the establishment coalition begins to fracture. There is anecdotal evidence that many rank-and-file police officers and civil servants are sympathetic to demands for reform, but protests have not achieved the critical mass that would compel people to choose sides.
A decision to defect from the establishment may have many causes, such as a recalculation of material interests, or developments that prick the conscience, like state violence against peaceful protesters.
A Thai analyst called the activists’ strategy a “gambit … to provoke the police enough so that they will clamp down hard on the protesters” in order to sway public opinion. It is unlikely that the government could forcefully quash criticism of the monarchy without also exciting the opposition of greater numbers of Thai people.
How Does It End?
Absent from royalist analysis is a positive argument for how Thai people benefit from maintaining a royal institution that is staggeringly wealthy, politically engaged and above the law. Instead, as political scientist Suchit Bunbongkarn observed in Monarchy and Constitutional Rule in Democratizing Thailand (2012), royalists tend to argue that political legitimacy is culturally specific, and that reverence for the monarchy is essential to Thai culture.
In a defense of the lese majeste law (in the same volume cited above), royalist legal scholar Bowornsak Uwanno argued that any limits on freedom of expression arising from Thailand’s defamation laws “reflect the ethical and cultural norms that most Thais adhere to.” Such contentions raise the question of whether the kingdom’s laws are a reflection of apparent norms, or their cause.
And what happens when norms change? The protest movement should be understood as an effort to bring social and political institutions into better alignment with emerging cultural norms and the need for structural change. Many protest leaders recognise that the horizon for the reforms they seek necessarily extends years into the future.
One of their slogans, “Let it end in our generation”, combines a sense of urgency with an acknowledgment that change takes time. Whatever happens next, long-term transformation is already in train.
Bowornsak conceded that culture is not static: “As the Buddhist law of impermanence states, everything, the lese majeste law included, arises, exists and perishes, as the society’s ethical and cultural norms evolve in accordance with this same Buddhist law. Nothing is permanent”.
The question is, can the conflict be managed so that, in the near term, Thailand avoids the spasms of violence that have occurred in the past when popular sovereignty has challenged the royalist status quo? The signs are discouraging. Thailand’s history points to a pattern of state violence against proponents of change.
The conflict’s high stakes reduce prospects for compromise and divisions are hardening.
Finally, there are no institutions or mechanisms not already implicated in the conflict available to help strike bargains. The obvious pathway out of the crisis is to empower elected institutions that can reflect the popular will, reconcile majoritarianism with protection of fundamental rights, and manage a process of achieving a fresh consensus on political legitimacy.
But Thailand’s parliament, enfeebled by the 2017 constitution and the powerful appointed senate, is unlikely to serve this function. By resisting change, the government is increasing the likelihood of a dangerous confrontation.
Matthew Wheeler is senior Southeast Asia analyst at the International Crisis Group (www.crisisgroup.org). Republished with permission; the original story may be read here. Wheeler’s wider ICG work may be found here.