BANGKOK – Thailand’s 68-year-old king and his loyal prime minister survived a dangerous 2020, relentlessly exposed to youth-led street protests demanding democracy and limits to the monarch’s wealth and power.
“Maha” or “Great” King Vajiralongkorn and Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha now face a harsh January, with a Covid-19 resurgence and promised new rounds of street protests, but are nonetheless expected to emerge secure.
“Prayut does not seem to be in danger. The royal-military alliance seems to be unassailable,” said Michael Nelson of the Asian Governance Foundation, which focuses on law, academia and other sectors.
“The protesters, though big on Facebook, also have little backing in the population. And now, the government is getting tough with them,” Nelson said in an interview.
Prime Minister Prayut seized power in a bloodless 2014 coup when he was a general and army commander-in-chief and was elected to the head of a coalition government in 2019 in polls critics claim were rigged in his favor.
Today, Prayut is dependent on royalists, industrialists, the military and an urban-based upper and middle class.
The king and prime minister, however, are challenged by tens of thousands of protesters who swarmed Bangkok’s streets during the past six months.
Their three demands remain: topple Prayut’s government, replace Thailand’s 20th constitution with a new charter, and “reform” the monarchy, the latter a hitherto unheard of rally cry.
Prayut’s administration was widely hailed for quickly containing Covid-19’s first outbreak in the kingdom, though at a severe economic price.
The death toll was limited to 60 people in this Southeast Asian nation of 70 million, but has climbed in recent weeks to at least 67 dead amid the worst outbreak yet in the country.
The Thai economy reportedly contracted 7.7% in 2020. It’s devastated massive tourism industry, representing around 20% of gross domestic product (GDP), is not expected to revive any time soon.
Some expect anger to swell against Prayut in 2021 as Thais suffer from a second round of containment measures in an already ravaged economy.
“Another way to say it is the students may not have won much, but the government continues its string of losses,” David Streckfuss, author of “Truth on Trial in Thailand,” said in an interview.
“Thailand is in a legitimacy crisis, an identity crisis, of unprecedented proportions” and faces a new generation “that is smart, flexible and quick, and that proposes a very new, modern view of Thai society that celebrates difference, whether in political thought, gender diversity, ethnicity, etcetera,” Streckfuss said.
Most of the demonstrations, led by university students and schoolchildren, have been festive with live music, speeches, political souvenirs and curbside food carts churning out cheap food.
But at some confrontations, security forces blasted them with truck-mounted, chemically-irritating water. Protesters occasionally smashed police barricades. A handful were shot in unclear circumstances at one chaotic protest.
The latest boisterous street confrontations included flamboyant, fleshy, fashion-disaster students prancing in public, mimicking the expensive clothing and snobby entitlement of royalists and other elites.
Dozens of protesters now face up to 15 years in jail for their camp gestures, costumes, and especially their often caustic accusations which royalists perceived as insults against the monarchy.
The Criminal Code’s Article 112 lese majeste law severely punishes anyone who defames, insults or threatens the king, queen, heir-apparent or regent.
The constitution also states: “The King shall be enthroned in a position of revered worship and shall not be violated. No person shall expose the King to any sort of accusation or action.”
Arrests, charges and threats of imprisonment may have dampened some dissent, but may also galvanize others to rebel.
But their rebellious movement is suffering from internal splits. A previously hailed Youth Forum group recently signaled its support of communism, and published a logo similar to a hammer and sickle – sparking complaints by other protesters.
Protesters’ volunteer guards, meanwhile, began fighting among themselves in the streets and aggressively grappled with police and their barricades – defying demonstrators’ claims to be peaceful.
King Maha Vajiralongkorn, one of the world’s wealthiest monarchs, is expected to maintain his position of strength during 2021 while trying to adapt to an increasingly international and in spots glaring public spotlight.
Protesters want to unlink the palace’s recent control over two army infantry regiments, and stop paying taxes which protesters have carped are used to pay for some of the monarchy’s ceremonies and activities.
They want the constitutional monarchy to revert to a more limited structure and role similar to the earliest years under Great King Vajiralongkorn’s late father, the widely revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who died in 2016.
They also want to delete the constitution’s amended Crown Property Act of 2017, which gave the king direct control of royal assets worth billions of dollars. Royalists say many of those assets originally belonged to Thailand’s earlier kings and were subsequently inherited.
Bangkok’s fast-moving and treacherous politics have hit the American Embassy and US Congress.
The embassy strenuously rejected royalists’ recent claims that current and recent American ambassadors secretly manipulated Thai dissidents, stoked pro-democracy protests, and supported subversive online campaigns.
US Senator Tammy Duckworth [D-Illinois] and eight other Democratic party senators said in a joint resolution on December 3, “violence and repression by the country’s monarchy and government,” were used against protesters.
Thai officials have sharply countered that assessment. “Some [US] senators” received “inaccurate information” about the protests, said Thailand’s government spokesman Anucha Burapachaisri.
“Their concerns are not shared by the rest of the US Congress. The protesters have also been breaking the law with the intention to abolish the royal institution,” Anucha said.
The US has supported Thailand’s dictators, elected prime ministers, and monarchy ever since World War II, a period that saw 13 military coups. During 2020, relations deepened under President Trump, who embraced Prayut in the Oval Office in 2017.
If President-elect Biden’s administration emphasizes Thailand’s lack of human rights, Bangkok’s ruling politicians might squirm while street protesters rejoice.
Thailand’s army, navy and air force however expect US weapons sales, training, and public statements boosting the Thai military will continue under Biden.
Much of Washington’s focus on Bangkok concerns a perceived rivalry between the US and China for Thai influence. Street protesters and even opposition politicians have taken recently taken critical aim at China’s authoritarian ways and means.
Richard S Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based American foreign correspondent reporting from Asia since 1978 and author of a new nonfiction book, “Rituals. Killers. Wars. & Sex. — Tibet, India, Nepal, Laos, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka & New York.”