Thai anti-government protests veer toward critique of the monarchy

A pro-democracy protest in Chiang Mai, Thailand on July 19. Photo: Skylar Lindsay.

A normally taboo subject may be gaining acceptance among activists.

By Doug Snow                                                                   

In late July, anti-government protests led by student activists reemerged in Thailand. While the first waves of protests were directly aimed at the military-backed government and weak democratic norms, more recent protests have partly taken aim at a much more dangerous target: the Thai monarchy.

On August 3, about 200 protestors dressed in Harry Potter-themed costumes symbolically cast spells for true democracy in the country. Some activists, led by human rights lawyer Anon Nampa, openly criticized the monarchy, a subject normally viewed as off-limits—in part due to the threat of prosecution and jail time.

Nampa and other protestors called for reform of an anti-monarchy defamation law known as lese majeste, which carries a minimum penalty of three years in jail. They also called for the repeal of laws that extend undue power to the king and questioned the management of crown assets.

He also mentioned that some people are criticizing the king for living in Germany full-time, an arrangement supported by Thai citizens’ taxes. Reports indicate that the Thai monarchy is the richest in the world, with total estimated wealth of up to US$43 billion.

Days after the protests, Nampa and a student protestor were arrested after a senior government official, Apiwat Kantong, lodged a royal defamation case against them over the remarks. Nampa and the student were accused of multiple crimes, including sedition.

They were taken to jail despite the fact that the Bangkok Criminal Court rejected the police’s temporary detention requests, but later made bail. However, the bail order requires that they refrain from engaging in any acts similar to their alleged crimes.

Explaining his reason for speaking out, Nampa posted on Facebook that he feels the country and its laws should work for everyone, not just those in power.

“It is important and necessary to talk about the expansion of the power of the monarchy because so [sic] that the society can ask questions and find solutions to the country’s problems together, because the country does not belong to just one person but to all of us,” he wrote.

Inequality and the cult of power permeate Thai society

Despite Thailand’s strong economic progress over recent decades, it is also one of the most unequal countries with the world. A handful of family-owned conglomerates own and operate the majority of large businesses and the gap between the rich and poor continues to grow.

Poor Thais struggle with low wages, unequal access to services and social capital, yet are culturally and legally expected never to criticize the monarchy.

Although GDP per year increased by over US$100 billion from 2015 to 2018, the absolute number of people living in poverty increased by over 2%—just under 2 million people—during the same time frame.

The military, meanwhile, continues to hold outsize influence in the country. Since it took power in 2014, democratic norms have been shredded.

Although the country held elections for the first time in five years in 2019, the military-backed party managed to hold onto power after pushing through an amended constitution in 2017 that gave them the sole power to appoint the 250-seat Senate.

Earlier this year a growing progressive opposition party, Future Forward, was disbanded and its leaders were banned from politics for 10 years after the country’s Constitutional Court ruled that its leader funneled illegal loans into party coffers.

The court itself is heavily influenced by the military. In 2017, the then-junta leadership extended the terms of five out the nine judges on the court. The court has historically been used as a legal instrument to uphold military initiatives in the country and give an air of legitimacy to the military coups in 2006 and 2014.

Maha Vajiralongkorn, King of Thailand and Suthida, the Queen consort. Photo: Tris_T7 / CC BY-SA

The monarchy and the military ostensibly support each other as Vajiralongkorn grabs power

The Thai monarchy, led by King Vajiralongkorn after his widely-revered father, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, passed away in 2016, has largely thrown its weight behind the military.

The military calls itself the upholder of the monarchy, painting itself as a stabilizing and culturally-important institution.

Royal partnerships with the military were an important aspect of the monarchy’s influence in the country going back decades. But more recently, Vajiralongkorn has tightened his grip over the institution while also claiming more power for himself.

Beginning in 2016, Vajiralongkorn bolstered the monarchy’s hold on commercial assets in the country and increased its influence over the military.

In October 2019, the king took personal control of two army units in Bangkok for use at the palace. The directive was signed off by military-backed Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha under article 172 of the 2017 constitution, which allows for royal decrees in the event of an emergency that threatens national security or the monarchy.

While it is unclear what emergency necessitated the move, the transfer was published in the Royal Gazette as law without any need for consideration in the legislature.

In addition, Vajiralongkorn hand-picked monarchy loyalist Apirat Kongsompong to be the new leader of the armed forces in late 2018. In the run up to Thailand’s 2019 elections, Apirat said that the army would strive to remain neutral but did not rule out another coup if politics led to conflict.

Since taking up the post, Apirat routinely criticizes the democracy movement in the country, suggesting that activists are unpatriotic.

In a 2019 lecture at an army base in Bangkok, Apirat said the royal institution, the military and people were “inseparable.” He also lamented what he deemed to be collusion between “communist” politicians and academics who spread “propaganda” aimed at young people.

He harkened back to the 1970’s when Thailand was fighting communist guerrillas with the backing of the monarchy, invoking sentimentality and nationalism.

“His Majesty was in the operation base, ate and slept like other soldiers. His Majesty visited local residents, gave moral support and fought shoulder by shoulder with brave soldiers,” he said, referring to King Bhumibol.

Thais should have the right to criticize the monarchy

The halls of power in Thailand are firmly against any changes to the country’s underlying power structures—which are not only deeply unequal but also undemocratic. Activists are being harassed and detained in an attempt to scare others into silence.

During the rally in Bangkok that led to Anon Nampa’s arrest, he noted that criticizing the monarchy was not an attempt to disband it, but to ensure that it operates in a legal manner with the backing of regular citizens.

“Talking like this is not overthrowing the monarchy, but it is for the monarchy to exist in Thai society with legitimacy in accordance with the democratic system of government with the monarch as head of state,” he said during his speech, later adding that if the political fight was successful it would be a benefit to all Thais, including those who filed charges against him.

Vajiralongkorn is losing popularity due to his seemingly aloof attitude toward the public, unstable personal life and decision to live abroad, possibly leading the ruling classes to worry that the monarchy will be diminished in the eyes of the public.

But whether those in power agree with the opposition movements is not the point—all Thais should have the right to critique the monarchy and its dealings.

At their best, monarchies in the modern age operate as cultural representations of the people and their traditions, contributing to the welfare of the nation through charitable services and acts of goodwill.

In Thailand, despite the military’s assertions, that ideal is clouded by legitimate concerns over abuse, inequality and mismanagement. Thais need to be able to push for changes to an institution which not only represents them abroad but also holds such influence at home.

While it’s unclear how much the current wave of activism will approach issues surrounding the monarchy, royal reform will have to become a mainstream debate in the long run in Thailand as the country continues to develop and modernise.

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