Since August, a movement created by students and youth has been calling for political reform in Thailand. The revolutionary movement’s aim is to transform the political system into a democracy, where the monarchy is accountable to the country’s elected institutions, stays out of politics, and does not exercise control over important army units.
Culturally and politically, the people of Thailand are generally taught that their King is an untouchable god whose power is not to be questioned. The Thai Constitution states at the top 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.” There is also the lese-majeste law, which subjects anyone criticizing the royal family to secret trials and long prison sentences.
Thailand’s King Vajiralongkorn began his reign in 2016 and was crowned in 2019 following the death of his father. However, Thailand’s King was subject to much scrutiny long before he was crowned. There have been persistent rumors of womanizing and illegal business surrounding the King. He has been married four times ‒ with his first marriage in 1977 to his cousin, Princess Soamsawali, whom he left for an actress, Yuvadhida ‒ and has had a total of seven children. In 1996, Vajiralongkorn publicly denounced Yuvadhida and disowned his four sons from that marriage. He married his third wife, Srirasmi, in 2001 and had another son with her. In 2014, Srirasmi was stripped of her royal title and many of her relatives were arrested for lese-majeste charges.
Others who were close to the Crown Prince have been arrested for the same charge, including his personal bodyguard, who was stripped of his rank for “disobeying royal commands” and “threatening the monarchy by pursuing his own interests.” He disappeared after these allegations and is believed to have died. The King has also promoted his pet poodle, Fu-Fu, to the rank of Air Chief Marshal. In May 2019, days before his coronation, Vajiralongkorn married a former flight attendant, making her Queen. The severity of the lese-majeste law has prevented any open discussion of the new king’s suitability inside Thailand.
Shortly after taking the throne, King Vajiralongkornhe demanded that the Thai Constitution be rewritten to allow him to spend time outside Thailand without appointing a regent in his absence, thereby allowing him to rule from abroad. Since then, the King has spent the majority of his time in Germany. He has been largely absent from his kingdom since the coronavirus pandemic hit, leaving his nation to suffer on its own. The King and his entourage of 100 fled to Germany and have been staying at Hotel Sonnenbichl since March. Now, with the protests on-going, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas has stated that “We have made it clear that politics concerning Thailand should not be conducted from German soil. If there are guests in our country that conduct their state business from our soil we would always want to act to counteract that.”
The other man at the center of this protest is Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha. He began his military career in the prestigious 21st Infantry, rising through the ranks and attaining the rank of major general following the 2006 coup. In 2014, he became acting premier of Thailand and drafted a constitution that absolved him of any responsibility for the coup and allowed him to remain a military official while serving as head of the nation. A new legislature was installed, composed of military and police officers, and the sole candidate, Prayuth, was nominated as prime minister. Since becoming prime minister, he has cracked down on any and all perceived forms of dissent. Political forums were banned, freedom of speech was abandoned, martial law was imposed, and politicians, journalists, and critics were detained.
Protests have ignited in response to Prayuth’s authoritarian action and the King’s overall inaction. The protestors are mostly students, including many high school students. Their dissatisfaction with their education has grown into a broader challenge to the government, the military, and the monarchy. The students are calling on Prime Minister Prayuth to resign, for the Constitution to be revised, for the King to come under the Constitution’s authority, and for the dissolution of the Parliament. Their most revolutionary demand is to limit the power of the monarchy, which has not been challenged for 88 years.
The protests date back to February when the Future Forward party was dissolved, leaving many young Thais alienated and prompting them to seek change outside the parliamentary system. Things were put on hold due to the coronavirus pandemic that hit Thailand and the rest of the world. Then in August, Arnon Nampa, a human rights lawyer, publicly called for reforms of the monarchy at the Democracy Monument in Bangkok.
In September, thousands of protestors gathered in Bangkok to call for changes to Thailand’s military-dominated government, the army-drafted constitution, and the exalted status of the monarchy. “We have to conquer our fear because if we don’t come out to fight then our future will not improve,” said Rewat Chusub, a 41-year-old tailor. In response to these protests, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha tamped down dissent by detaining activists. However, this did not stop the protestors as they laid out a plaque on Sanam Luang, the royal field. The embossed seal said: “At this place, the people have expressed their will that this country belongs to the people and is not the property of the monarchy, as they have deceived us.”
On October 14, thousands of anti-government protestors gathered near Government House and called for the resignation of Chan-o-cha. The next day, a state of emergency was declared and mass gatherings over five people were prohibited. Protests did not stop, prompting the Thai police to use water cannons against peaceful pro-democracy protests in Bangkok on October 16. The police used water cannons laced with blue dye and an apparent teargas chemical in Bangkok’s Pathumwan shopping district and charged in with batons and shields to disperse the protesters. This still did not deter protesters.
On October 22, Prime Minister Chan-o-cha canceled the state of emergency he had declared the week prior. This was seen as a gesture to help cool the protests. However, protesters continued to march near his office, Government House, demanding that he step down. They also requested the release of their colleagues who were arrested in previous protests. They gave the Prime Minister three days to meet their requests or they would return.
Prime Minister Chan-o-cha refused to step down and the protesters’ deadline has since passed. But, protesters have stayed true to their word, keeping up the pressure on the government with more and more protests. On November 17, Parliament began a two-day session to review potential changes to the constitution but ended up rejecting five of the seven amendments proposed by the people. Since then, protestors have remained unimpressed with the government’s efforts to appease them, and thousands have continued to take to the streets to voice their grievances.
The pro-democracy activists have even called for the international community to take action. On October 26, protesters marched to the German embassy in Bangkok, demanding that the German government investigate the King’s activities in Germany. And, more recently, on December 10, pro-democracy activists held a rally at the United Nations’ office in Bangkok, calling for the UN to pressure the Thai government into repealing the lese-majeste law.
As of now, it seems unlikely that these protests will slow down. If anything, these grassroots protestors are becoming more organized and intentional in their aims. This new generation wants change. They do not want to inherit an old Thailand where fundamental rights such as freedom of expression are suspended in the name of reverence to the King. They want a new and freer Thailand where publicly criticizing the King or other royals is not a crime but a fundamental right.