By The Herring Team
Thailand is currently going through a pivotal moment in its complicated political history. The country is unique for its lèse majesté law, which prohibits citizens from “insulting, defaming, and threatening” the monarchy. Yet for the first time ever in Thailand’s history of political demonstrations, the Free People movement is demanding for the reform of monarchy and a return to democracy.
The primal root of the youth led uprising lies with Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha and his illegitimate government. He is a former military general who led a coup d’état in 2014 against a controversial right-wing populist government. His military junta governed Thailand until 2019 when his party, Palang Pracharat, won a rigged election through the 2017 military-drafted constitution that ensured a military majority in the election. After his “official” appointment as prime minister, his government dissolved the Future Forward party, led by Thai billionaire business mogul Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, which was very popular among the youth. These two successive events provoked the initial youth-led civilian uprising that began in February earlier this year.
However, when the Covid-19 pandemic hit, protests had to be halted. Remarkably, Thailand succeeded in suppressing infection rates by closing borders early, but it came at the cost of a 12.2% GDP contraction in the second quarter of 2020 after tourism collapsed. Frustration at the government grew, as a slow and limited fiscal stimulus bill proved to be unavailing in recovering the economy. But the last straw finally broke for the protesters when news broke out of King Vajiralongkorn renting out an entire hotel in Germany with a harem of 20 girls. It prompted many citizens to openly question the moral authority of the King on twitter with the hashtag, #whydoweneedaking? A move that is highly unprecedented in a country where criticizing the king is a serious taboo.
So, when the country began to slowly open in July, it was as if the incubated frustration and anger from the lockdown finally broke loose manifesting itself into an even greater civilian uprising than before. On July 18th, the Free People movement made three demands: the dissolution of the House, end of the harassment of government critics, and amendments to the military-drafted constitution. Then on August 10th, the movement made their “10 demands” speech that called for comprehensive reforms to the monarchy, including the abolition of the lèse majesté law, the end of the monarchic intervention in politics, and investigations into missing government critiques. The government has attempted to compromise with the protesters by setting up a reconciliation committee. However, the protesters have rejected the offer due to the committee composition and conditions that are unfavourable to the movement.
Protests have continued on a weekly basis which have led to the arrests of many youth leaders. Most recently, the demonstrations have become increasingly disruptive which has prompted Prime Minister Prayut to threaten the protesters last week, “all laws and articles will be used to arrest protesters who break the law.” This includes article 112, the lèse majesté law that can imprison those who criticize the royal family for 3 to 15 years, which was used yesterday to charge the youth leaders of the movement. So far, the movement suggests the current turmoil to be another case of a democratic uprising against authoritarianism, but a closer look at the movement and the context in which it has risen suggests a less definitive story.
The Pros and Cons of the Youth-led Movement
Many believe that one of the reasons why this movement has gained such momentum is because the youth are at the center of it. It began with the young billionaire-turned-politician, Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, and now the protest leaders such as Panusaya “Rung” Sithijirawattanakul, Tattep “Ford” Ruang Prapai Kitseseree, and Panupong “Mike” Jadnok, who are all university students.
Efficient mobilization through social media is an aspect of the movement that highlights the importance of the youth-dominated demographic of the movement. Protest organizers have used emoticon reactions as well as “like” and “retweet” functions on social media to hold polls that decide whether they hold rallies that day. Social media has also been paramount in evading policer counter-action by providing a communication center that would swiftly guide them to new locations.
Some of the youth who don’t participate in the movement see the influence of social media on the uprising in a more negative light. Somchai, [changed for privacy] who goes to university in Bangkok, believes the consequence of this is that a lot of the youth who are part of the movement don’t actually know what the movement stands for and the implications of it. According to Somchai, this is down to three reasons.
Firstly, he believes politics have become a “fad” due to social media, where the sharing of political content has become trendy. This has consequently created peer pressure for people to adhere to the ideas of the movement, even if they don’t know what the implications are. He has seen the first hand effects of this pressure on his friends: “If you don’t support the movement, you are ostracized. I actually have friends who had doubts about the movement and now none of their friends talk to them.”
Secondly, Somchai believes that the Thai romanticization of America and the West has largely made the youth biased towards Western ideas. He attributes this to social media but also the flow of Western culture, mainly through Hollywood films and pop culture such as hip hop, which has gained immense popularity in Thailand recently.
However, his greatest critique lies in much of the youth’s apparent ignorance of the important role that the royal family has played in Thailand’s history. “They don’t know that the previous kings sold land to colonizers to keep them away or that King Bhumibol helped farmers in Northern Thailand lose their income dependency on opium by efficiently producing other crops. They don’t know what this country has been built on.”, said Somchai.
The Controversial Role of the “Twin Forces”
For many of those who don’t know Thailand’s political history, it is perplexing as to why the Free People movement is calling for the “reform of the monarchy”. This can be understood by the long standing relationship between the so-called “Twin Forces”, a term coined by Dr. Pavin Chachavalpongpun, to describe the interdependent relationship between the monarchy and military.
Thailand’s politics have historically been dominated by military influence. After 1932 when Thailand went through a democratic revolution from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy, the influence and power of the royal family was threatened. Therefore, when King Bhumibol, the previous monarch, came to power in late 1946, he sought to reverse this by strengthening the monarchy’s relationship with the military. This was achieved by defining the Thai nation as the monarchy, which meant issues regarding the security of the royal family became issues of national security. And by continuously depicting the monarch as under threat by different groups and people such as the communits during the Cold War, the military was able to entrench itself into Thai politics as the guardian of the monarch and by extension, the state.
According to Dr. Pavin, a Thai exiled pro-democracy critic in Japan, this expansive influence of the monarchy is the “mother of corruption” in Thailand. “The monarchy has cultivated this culture of corruption for so long that other institutions like the military and judiciary have taken inspiration from them. So it’s a systemic problem that leads back to the monarchy.” he says. Dr Pavin emphasizes the extent to which royal corruption has reached Thai society by noting the fact that in order to become a judge or a professor in Thailand, you need approval from the royal family.
To him, this historical relationship is the precise reason as to why the movement’s main objective must be the reforming of the monarchy. “This interdependent relationship has sustained the role of the military and monarchy in politics. That’s why reforming the monarchy automatically implies the reduction of the power of the military,” says Dr. Pavin.
However, Thais who still look up to the monarchy are not convinced of this accusation. They admit that there is royal corruption yet they don’t see the royal family as the source of the culture of corruption. “Thailand, like other Southeast Asian countries have had problems with corruption for a long time. This is because of the environment and the way you are raised, which is not a system issue but a people issue,” said Gamon, a university student, in defense of the monarchy.
Divergent Opinions on a Democratic Thailand
The protesters seem to be fully committed to democracy and are positive about the outcome of the movement. A Thai protester from the Free Thai movement demonstration that was held in Amsterdam earlier this month said, “It is a matter of time. If these protests don’t succeed, it will in 5 to 10 years because people have already changed their belief and we won’t move backwards.”
Dr. Pavin shares the same desires as the protesters; “Prayut has to go, parliament has to be dissolved, the constitution must be written, and then we need to call for elections.” That said, he is not so optimistic about these demands. He believes that if the movement fails, Thailand will remain a royal absolutism with the face of democracy, and if it succeeds, Thailand will become a republic. Dr. Pavin does not believe that a compromise will be achieved: “I don’t think Thailand can choose to be in between.”
Unlike Dr. Pavin and the protestors, some Thais have doubts about a fully democratic Thailand and see great importance in the power of the monarchy. This has one reason: preventing foreign interference in domestic politics. People like Somchai are concerned that a democratic Thailand, given its record of corruption, will be susceptible to becoming the “puppet” of China or America through bribery. He therefore sees the monarchy as guardian of the nation. “You can’t buy the royal family. They are the wealthiest monarchs in the world, so there’s no amount of money that you can offer to the King because he has more than that,” Somchai said.
That said, Somchai is already suspicious of foreign involvement in the protests. “There is actually a general consensus among the royalists, which means there’s probably some bias to it, that the money that is funding this movement isn’t coming from Thailand.” He speculates that the money may come from the US government. Although this allegation against the current movement lacks evidence, the concerns of American collusion in Thai politics is not entirely unfounded. Declassified CIA documents from the Cold War show that the US government has indeed interfered in Thai politics and have also predicted the current instability partially caused by the transfer of royal power.
The current political turmoil is a struggle between the future and the past. The youth-led movement sees a clear need to “modernize” the country by reforming the monarchy and removing the military government from power to get Thailand one step closer to the global standard of democracy. But it’s clear that those who do not support the movement see a distressing future for a democratic Thailand. For now, neither the protesters or government and its royal supporters seem to be willing to give up, and Thailand’s political future remains undetermined.