Since March, Bangkok, Thailand has been consumed by almost daily protests calling for government reform. But this past week, the tension of the past few months broke, with many loyalists gathering in the Grand Palace of Bangkok to celebrate the King Maha Vajiralongkorn and Queen Suthida Tidjai.
Thailand has been a monarchy since 1238, but recently, a pro-democracy movement has been gaining momentum, leading to many protests in recent months. The three main target issues of the movement relate to the monarch, constitution and the prime minister. Initially, the movement was triggered by the dissolution of the Future Forward Party, which represented many of the ideals the movement now stands for. The movement is popular among the younger, more progressive generation, and many of the protesters are college students. Protesters even adopted the three-finger salute from The Hunger Games as a symbol for their resistance. Although demonstrations began on college campuses, they have since expanded far beyond that.
Protesters’ demands are centered around the idea that the monarchy should be held accountable to the people. Some of the specific issues of Thailand’s monarchy are the king’s misuse of public funds, intervention into politics and control over the military. One instance protesters have used to bolster their cause is King Vajiralongkorn declaring Crown Property Bureau assets as his own when they were previously considered to be owned by the Thai people. King Vajiralongkorn has also taken personal control over all military units in Bangkok. According to Thai activist and human rights lawyer Anon Nampa, this was an abuse of power, and he would like to see monarchs acting on behalf of citizens instead of for their own personal gain. Criticisms of King Vajiralongkorn also stem from the fact that his predecessor and father King Bhumibol Adulyadej was highly respected by the people, and Vajiralongkorn has failed to follow this example. Protesters have been clear that they aren’t looking for the abolishment of the monarchy, but improvement.
Prior to the protests, criticizing the monarchy was not tolerated. Protesters take issue with Thailand’s lèse majesté law, which makes it illegal to defame, insult, or threaten anyone in the monarchy, with consequences being up to 15 years of imprisonment. It is considered by many to be the strictest defamation law in the world and it isn’t just ceremonial. According to a Thai legal database, “between the 2014 coup and early 2018, at least 98 lèse majesté charges were filed.”
On Oct. 15th, a small group of protesters was arrested after doing the three-finger salute in front of the queen’s motorcade. The protesters were charged with threatening violence against the queen, which goes against Thailand’s strict lèse majesté law. Since then, the protesters have been released on bail. In response to this unrest, the prime minister declared a “severe” state of emergency and released an order making rallies illegal, but repealed it one week later in an attempt to appease protesters.
In addition to criticisms of the monarchy, protesters take issue with the constitution itself, claiming that it is undemocratic. The constitution describes the king as “enthroned in a position of revered worship.” Protesters want to see the constitution allow for more freedom of expression and give less power to the monarchy.
Finally, protesters claim that Chan-o-cha won the 2019 election illegitimately, and demand his resignation. This is based on claims that Chan-o-cha played a large role in drafting the constitution after his coup and created it in a way that would ensure he stayed in power. Protesters previously provided a deadline of Oct. 24 for the prime minister to resign, but he has refused. Chan-o-cha has been in power since 2014 when he staged a military coup against the government. Since then, Chan-o-cha has taken a strong stance against the media and any form of dissent. While he has tried to rehabilitate his image as a more benevolent leader, these attempts have proven unsuccessful. Chan-o-cha’s response to recent events has further intensified protesters’ desire to remove him from power. Politicians from the rival party have capitalized on the negative sentiment towards the prime minister. During the emergency parliament session, Sompong Amornivivat, the leader of the Pheu Thai party stated, “‘the prime minister is a major obstacle and burden to the country. Please resign and everything will end well.’”
Even though this has not been enforced in the past few months, the government still considers the demonstrations to be unlawful. In his opening statement to parliament during an emergency session, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha stated, “‘though the people have the freedom to protest based on the constitution, authorities need to control the illegal protests.’”
Furthermore, the demonstrations have been non-violent for the most part, with supporters of the movement participating in marches and giving speeches. One such march took place on Oct. 30, when supporters marched from the Parliament building to the German Embassy. This march was motivated by protesters’ complaint that the king spends much of his time in Germany rather than in his own country. Moreover, they are calling for an investigation into his activities in Germany. German officials have also expressed concern with this, with German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas stating “‘We have made it clear that politics concerning Thailand should not be conducted from German soil.’” The king’s critics also complain that he spends his time partying in Bavaria rather than focusing on his own kingdom.
Since the movement first gained traction, many protesters have been arrested, mostly for defamation of the monarchy and sedition. Yet, this has further invigorated their desire for change and the number of demonstrations has only increased. At this point, it is unclear whether the movement’s demands for reform will be fulfilled or whether Thailand will remain unchanged.