Since October 14th, youth-led, pro-democracy activists have rallied relentlessly on the streets of Bangkok. They demand the prime minister General Prayuth resign, the constitution rewritten, and the monarchy reformed.
Forming often spontaneous, leaderless protests in different parts of the vast city, protestors have made it difficult for the authorities to keep up. And this despite an extraordinary emergency decree being declared which would make it legal for the military-ruled government to call in the armed forces to quell the uprising. It is an uprising, albeit of a new kind, that we are seeing in Thailand right now. Incited by university and high-school students fed up with authoritarianism and the feeling that an old political elite blocked their future prospects, the youth-led protests have been joined by older generations that see new hope for a struggle that goes back decades.
Three main demands have crystallized from the protest movement: Resign, rewrite, and reform.
The first demand is for prime minister general Prayuth Chan-ocha to resign, together with the cabinet. Prayuth came to power through a military coup d'état on 22 May 2014. The military coup—which the junta quickly forbid it be called—was motivated by the coming succession of kings. Under the name of the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), the coup makers justified harsh emergency decrees to protect the nation from the political turmoil that was feared to surface as the era of King Bhumibol Adulyadej (Rama IX, 1947-2016) was coming to an end.
In March 2019, Thailand held general elections, but the junta had changed the electoral process in ways that would grant the military continued power regardless of voting results. A new political party, the Future Forward Party, received significant attention with a political program aiming to limit the military influence in Thai politics as well as other democratic developments. The new oppositional party was surprisingly successful in the elections and received more than six million votes. In February 2020, Thailand's constitutional court dissolved the party and banned its leader from political activities for ten years. The dissolution of the Future Forward Party was one spark that helped ignite the protests.
The second demand by the pro-democracy protests—to rewrite the constitution—is closely connected to the demand for the current government to resign. After taking power in 2014, the junta began the process of writing a new constitution. The new constitution would make it impossible for any elected government to rule without the military's support. It also extended the extra-judicial power and privilege of the prime minister to issue emergency orders that had been put in place by the coup. The new constitution was passed through a referendum in August 2016, but the death of King Bhumibol on October 13th stalled the process. The new king, Vajiralongkorn (Rama X, 2016-) had the constitution amended to give himself more powers—comparable only with absolute monarchy before the reform to constitutional monarchy in 1932. The protesters call for a new democratic constitution written by representatives of "the people"—from all walks of life.
The third demand is the most controversial as calling for reform of the monarchy institution is taboo in Thai society. To say anything that can be deemed as criticizing or disrespecting the institution or members of the royal family is punishable under the law known as act 112. Anyone can raise charges, and each offense gives 15 years imprisonment, often resulting in near lifetime jail sentences. A young democracy activist was the first to be punished for breaching the law under the new king; his crime was sharing a BBC Thai biography of the king. While there was a spike in investigations of 112 breaches following the 2014 coup, King Vajiralongkorn has ordered the law to be suspended. This sudden turn in 2020 only shows how highly political the usages of the law is. Protecting the monarchy has legitimized military political intervention since the Cold War era.
The monarchy is important to the national identity construct of Thailand. To be Thai has meant to be a loyal subject to the king, the symbolic father of the nation. The king's picture is expected to be on the walls of every home, vehicle, and workplace. The monarchy's propaganda has been traditionally upheld and reproduced collectively, both out of reverence for the king and fear of repression from authorities. King Bhumibol was highly respected and loved, even by people critical of the monarchy. He was viewed as a virtuous and righteous king, a dhammaraja, and even a "virtually divine" king, a devaraja. In contrast, the current king has not been able to build a similar strong, untouchable image, to the distress of staunch royalists. Defaming footage of the king's affluent life-style has leaked to the public and has been disseminated widely on social media. In the international press attention has more recently been drawn to his covid-19 isolation in a luxury, Alpine-hotel, only visiting Thailand occasionally. The Thai king is also the richest monarch in the world. The Crown Property Bureau (CPB), a tax exempted organization, guards most of the wealth and makes its revenue from mainly real estate, shareholding in Thailand's largest companies, and investments in infrastructure development. The protestors want the monarchy to be under the constitution and possible to both discuss and scrutinize.
The youth who dominate and lead the protests in Thailand have come of age during military rule. The urban educated youth voted were the Future Forward Party’s biggest supporters and saw their votes and tiny political influence being overridden by an old political elite. They also saw their future being put on hold as the economy stagnated to reach a recession under the pandemic. They want to participate, and they want to make a difference.
Katrina Gaber, Ph.D. in Peace and Development Research from Gothenburg University. Her dissertation is titled 'Everyday (Anti-)Nationalization in Thailand: Power and Resistance in Khao Phra Wihan Conflict Narratives'.