In sun-soaked Thailand, civil unrest is brewing. Over the past several months, protestors have intensified their criticisms of the current military regime and called for change. The system they are fighting to reform is a complex, interconnected web involving the Thai monarchy, the armed forces, government officials, a culture of classism, and an allegedly corrupt constitution.
The first large-scale protests of this year happened in February after the forced dissolution of the regime-critical Future Forward Party. Lockdown orders forced these protests to pause, but desire for change only grew. As the COVID-19 pandemic loosened its grip on Thailand in sweltering July, activists—largely students—began staging protests at the Democracy Monument in the capital city of Bangkok, demanding governmental and constitutional reform. With no centralized leadership or codified ideology, protestors have varying ideas for reform, but most large-scale protests advocate for a dissolution of parliament and subsequent free elections, ending the persecution of political dissidents and peaceful protestors, and revising or redrafting the constitution penned by the military.
By August, some protestors’ demands also included critical reforms to the monarchy, ranging from reducing the far-reaching influence of the Crown Property Bureau, the quasi-government agency responsible for managing the property of the crown of the Kingdom of Thailand whose assets were exempt from tax until 2018, to advocating for the abolishment of the monarchy altogether. This is no mean feat: Thailand is a strict constitutional monarchy, and since insulting the royal family is illegal, any criticism of the king can be met with swift and severe punishment. Though the law does not theoretically apply to the military, leaders of military coups have utilized the charge as a political weapon, with several instances of arrest and forced disappearance for those who criticize the regime.
A History of Military Rule
Thailand, which became loosely democratic in 1932, has had a cycle of militaristic rule. There have been twelve successful military coups since that initial democratic takeover. No coup has led to a stable, truly democratic government. The current junta is led by current Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, a former army chief who took power in 2014. Two years later, the beloved King Bhumibol died, leaving his son, current King Vajiralongkorn, to succeed him. The king is traditionally beloved by much of Thai society as he maintains a virtuous, godlike visage. He occupies a unique place within Thai politics: juntas often operate as an extension of the monarchy’s will. Armed forces involved in the 2006 coup wore yellow ribbons, a symbol of the monarchy, to identify their support for the king.
It seems unlikely, though, that any one military regime could have lasting power in the country. “Broadly speaking, there are not many examples across the world where military-run governments are successful,” said Dr. Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the former high commissioner of human rights for the United Nations, in an interview with The Gate. “Once it seizes power from what is seen to be a corrupt, civilian-run government, the expectation is that in a very short order, adjustments are made and civilian rule returns . . . in most cases, military governments don’t work in the way that they should.”
“We suspected, in time, you would see dissatisfaction, and this is broadly what we’ve begun to see: dissatisfaction with the way in which the generals are running the country,” he continued.
The relationship between the military and monarchy has another addition: the emerging class of the ultra-wealthy. This is a well-oiled triangular relationship as the military and monarchy each have reason to keep civilian power in the hands of the wealthy, who can then flagrantly violate the law as they exercise control over the Thai economy.
The king’s ultra-wealthy peers helm national and international names like the beers Singha and Chang and the energy drink company Red Bull. This summer, all charges were dropped against Red Bull heir Vorayuth Yoovidhya, who fled Thailand in 2017 after a deadly hit and run five years earlier. Despite the prime minister's declaration that justice would never be “divided along class lines,” the severe wealth inequality in Thailand, it seems, extends into the core of the justice system. “In many countries you see policies which on the surface look like they’re designed for the general population, and when you probe deeper you see that it’s really just a preservation of power by the elite,” Zeid said.
Suppression and Censorship
Zeid discussed the threat of imprisonment for those who criticize the monarchy. “We always took the position that the widest agreement towards freedom of expression should be given, because it’s the surest check against tyranny,” he told The Gate. “While in many jurisdictions it’s unlawful to libel or slander, it should be your right to insult and to be insulted, short of incitement to hatred and violence. That ought to be your right, it’s the surest guarantee and guard against tyranny.”
The militaristic government and conservative monarchists have largely met the protests with harsh suppression. From facing internet censorship to liberal use of water cannons, youth activists have put their own lives in danger to enact change in their country. And their fight is far from over.
The Protestor Perspective
"I went mainly [to a protest in Bangkok] because I wanted to compare to protests of the previous government," said Mass Praditbatuga, a first-year in the College. "Protests, coups . . . are a mainstay in Thai politics. There's distinctly more young people in the current one, [especially] . . . high school students and university students."
Students have a critical place in Thai protests, perhaps most notably in the months following the 1976 return of former dictator Thanom Kittikachorn to the country. That year, a demonstration at Thammasat University in Bangkok was accused of illegally insulting the monarchy, leading to a bloody crackdown on the thousands-strong group, resulting in the arrests of thousands and an unofficial death count exceeding one hundred.
Today, student-led demonstrations have avoided such drastic consequences, but with excessive police force on the rise, safety is far less of a guarantee. At a November 17 protest, use of tear gas, chemical-laced water cannons, and reckless gunfire led to dozens of reported injuries. They may not be the last.
“As a student, I’m seventeen years old. I’d never been to a protest,” noted Bangkok high school senior Rosalyn Bejrsuwana. “I was scared. [In November] the authorities used tear gas on us . . . my friends and I got why our parents don’t want their kids protesting.”
The student fight for a new Thailand extends past the country’s borders. Pomme Kashemsri, a first-year at Oxford University, has been remotely involved in the protests for months. “You usually hear about things late—we’re behind in time,” Kashemsri said. “So there’ll be something horrible going on, like protestors being attacked by the police, and you hear about it, like, two hours later as you’ve woken up.” Despite the distance, Kashemsri and other members of the Oxford and Cambridge Thai student and alumni community have maintained solidarity with student leaders, authoring a statement condemning the government’s actions.
Social media has facilitated greater awareness of these protests. “What’s unique about these protests is there’s no sort of sacred territory like before . . . there’s literally no topic that’s not up for debate,” a protestor stated. “We're inclined to think of social media activism as ‘slacktivism.’ Seeing how the protests have gone, though, I actually think my opinions on social media protesting have changed quite a bit. If you had told me a year ago that this three-hundred-year-old dynasty would have been brought to its knees by a bunch of angry memes on Twitter, I would have laughed.”
Other students shared similar sentiments. Bejrsuwana has been using social media to monitor the safety of the protests around her: “I was going to go to the [Siam Commercial Bank] Protest, but, on Twitter, it was said that [police] used bullets. So I was like, nope.”
Protesting amid the COVID-19 pandemic has presented challenges. Though the reported cases have been astoundingly low, Thailand enacted a nationwide state of emergency mid-April that is projected to extend into at least early 2021. While this state of emergency did not ban demonstrations, short-term emergency decrees have given authorities the power to crack down on gatherings of more than four people.
“[The government has] issued emergency decrees to deal with COVID, and they're still refusing to give up these emergency powers, so, effectively, the government right now is a military dictatorship again—well, I mean, it’s always been one—because the powers assumed are equivalent to the powers they would have had without elections,” Kashemsri said.
“Some of my friends agree with a reform, but that this is not the right time,” Bejrsuwana said. “Because there's COVID, you know, and the numbers are going up. And I'm like, well, if that's the case, then they should have banned public transportation and concerts a long time ago.”
Looking To The Future
When asked what youth hope to see in the future, the answer was clear: systematic change. “The only way I can see this dynasty surviving is if it adapts,” a protestor said solemnly. “I think these social conventions around this idea of patronage, this idea of obeying your loyalty to one person, I feel there's just no place for it in a modern society.”
Among young protestors, it is not a matter of who is in power—it is the method and system of power itself at fault. “[Without systematic change] how can we ensure that [protests] won’t result in another soldier or dictator who comes into the country and just, you know, stays for another ten years?” sighed Bejrsuwana.
Kashemsri felt similarly: “If the system isn't allowing for the kinds of change you want, and in the case of Thailand, if it's not even allowing you to speak your opinion, then it's only a matter of time before a group comes in and starts saying, well, there's something wrong with the system, and there needs to be action taken to deal with it.”
To one student (who, for safety against defamation accusations, has chosen to go unnamed), discussion of democracy and constitutional reform isn’t enough. “We need to have started having a lot of conversations about not just the monarchy, not just the military, but also this commercial business class that is also involved in this relationship . . . there is a business establishment connected to the military and the monarchy. And even if you remove the monarchy, and even if you destroy the power of the military, to some extent, there's still this ghost of the old system left.”
“Clearly if the [Thai] government doesn’t seem to be addressing the wishes of the protestors, to sit and find a common position, then it’s likely these protests will grow—you might use suppression, and it works in the short term, but dissatisfaction grows in a way that makes it difficult,” Zeid mused. “It’s almost reckless, you’re making life more difficult for yourself as a government in the future . . . The hardest thing, the more difficult thing, and the thing that needs to be done is to actually sit with those protestors, properly listen to them—sometimes it can be really abusive, but you have to sit and listen. That’s a part of the job of being a public official.”
For Thailand, the future is unclear. Perhaps these protests, the first in a centuries-long tradition to truly be critical of the monarchy and take full advantage of mass media, will bring the birth of a new, just era for Thailand: one that endures. Maybe, like those before, they will conclude with another despot in the long chain of dictatorial power and control. Either way, it is clear that the stakes are high.
“There’s hardly a conflict taking place today where the origins of the conflict don’t lie in some human rights issue,” noted Zeid. “Criminality increases, governance is poor, and eventually militants start to take to the stage . . . all preceded by unattended chronic human rights violations.” To reach a state of stability and a future less likely to tend to conflict, the government must heed calls for change. True reform is long overdue.
“[Public advocacy] is like bringing a hammer to concrete,” Zeid said. “You take a hammer, and smash the concrete, and the dust flies off, and you don’t see a crack, and you think it’s not working. Just bring the hammer down again. And again. And again. And a crack will start. States are like that. The public advocacy does work, but too few people are willing to do it.”
Thailand has its crack in the concrete. As young protestors bring down the hammer, a new nation may emerge from the cracks.
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