Youth in Thailand have been protesting in recent months over the military’s involvement in Thai politics. Thailand’s student activists demand a new parliamentary election, a new constitution and for authorities to stop harassing its critics.
The persistent protests started when the obscure Future Forward Party (FFP), with its charismatic leader, Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, surprisingly garnered the third-largest share of seats because it is particularly popular with young and first-time voters in the elections held last March, was forced to disband after a Court found that the Party committed an illegal election act. The rise of COVID-19 restrictions halted the initial protests but things heated up again in June when a prominent pro-democracy activist went missing.
The leaderless movement is driven by a group known as the Free Youth, an umbrella group that includes several student organizations as well as gay, lesbian and transgender youths.
The youth-led nationwide protests have been building up constantly and saw one of the largest demonstrations this week in Bangkok since the 2014 coup that paved the way for the military-backed government of General Prayut Chan-o-cha to take office. But this time the protesters added a new twist–publicly calling out the Thai monarchy, the taboo third rail of Thai politics.
Thais are trained from birth that the Royal family is the foundation that holds the country together, the institution that exemplify the national character.
While the country’s absolute monarchy was ousteded by a peaceful revolution in 1932, Thailand remains bound by royal customs. The father of the current King, Maha Vajiralongkorn, reigned for seventy years and was the world’s longest-serving monarch until he passed away in 2016.
Thailand has one of the strictest lèse-majesté laws in the world. All of the nineteen recent Thai constitutions have stated, that “The King shall be enthroned in a position of revered worship” and that “No person shall expose the King to any sort of accusation or action”. Article 112 of the criminal code subjects anyone criticizing the royal family to secret trials and punishable to up to 15 years in prison.
Thais are expected to respect, exalt, and love the monarchy, but also to fear the consequences of speaking ill of the royalty. Like in the case of Wanchalearm Satsaksit, 37, a prominent Thai pro-democracy activist and satirist who had lived in exile in Cambodia since 2014. He was abducted in broad daylight and has not been seen since. His abduction caused the protests that re-started in June.
The young protesters are demanding the monarchy to be accountable to the country’s elected institutions. They are pressing to revoke the strict lèse-majesté laws, allow criticism of the king, re-nationalization of royal wealth, separating the monarch’s personal properties from the Crown Property Bureau, prohibiting the monarchy from endorsing any coups and remove his control over two army units in Bangkok.
They also criticized the current King’s use of royal funds which, under his late father, is a trust to benefit the Thai people. But now, the protesters say that he turned such wealth into personal property and that they would appreciate if the King would spend more time in Thailand and not in Bavaria, Germany.
“it is fair and democratic for us to talk about anyone involved in politics, whether it is the military or the monarchy” – Anon Nampa, Thai Human Rights Lawyer
One powerful army commander, General Apirat Kongsompong, suggested that the protesters were stricken by “chung chart” or “hatred of the nation,” a term used in the past to arouse ultra-nationalist Thais against perceived enemies, and told soldiers, “hating your own country is a disease that is not curable.” The military firmly supports the Royal Family’s position as Thailand’s paramount moral authority and many Thai conservatives say the bond between the monarchy and the army is an assurance of stability in Thai society.
Perceived opposition to the monarchy has been used for years to legitimize coups, send political opponents to prison or exile, or even kill them–as happened during a massacre of student protesters at Bangkok’s Thammasat University in 1976, which was aggravated by a rumor of a slight by the students against then Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, the present king. [Pxxxt]The police and right-wing vigilantes opened fire on left-wing students inside Thammasat University, killing dozens and left many wounded.
While the country’s political elite have mostly either stayed mum or condemned the protesters, more than a hundred university professors across Thailand endorsed an open letter to back the youth protesters. They said the youth’s appeal amount to free speech and doesn’t insult the King which they say are honest proposals in the preservation of the constitutional monarchy.
Not all young Thais share the same sentiments. Royalists defenders staged their rallies concerned about the perceived offensive accusation and unreasonable demands against the monarchy.
This is an unexplored territory for Thailand politics, and no-one knows what will happen next.