Thailand’s new youth-led democracy movement has held near-daily protests since July, demanding a new constitution, a new parliament and unprecedented reform of the monarchy. Parliament’s recent move to delay its vote on charter reform suggests the government is out of touch and doesn’t realize that the protestors won’t back down.
Despite a growing wave of popular protests, Thailand’s parliament voted on Thursday to put off the question of whether to amend the country’s constitution.
Since July, a student-led movement has called for sweeping democratic reforms, including to reduce the monarchy’s power over the government and the military as well as to place checks on its wonton spending of public budgets. The past two months have seen near-daily protests across the country as well as intense state harassment of organizers—many critics of the government have been murdered or abducted in recent years, including those abroad.
The protests began with calls for the dissolution of parliament, constitutional reform and an end to harassment against the country’s opposition. But in mid-August, student leaders at a demonstration at Thammasat University issued a list of 10 demands that included unprecedented calls to end the monarchy’s legal immunity and repeal the country’s notorious lese-majeste law.
Thailand’s monarchy has largely evaded criticism due to the draconian statute, known as Section 112, which threatens up to 15 years in prison for offending or insulting the monarchy.
But record-breaking protests in Bangkok and across the country on September 19-20th—the largest since the most recent military coup in 2014—saw demonstrators openly mock King Maha Vajiralongkorn, with some wearing skimpy crop tops and fake tattoos for which he is now infamous. Tens of thousands of protestors cheered as student leaders called for reform to the monarchy.
“There is no fear anymore. We are at the point of no return. We can’t go back from here,” protest organizer Tattep Ruangprapaikitseree told VICE News.
The current tide of pro-democracy protests in Thailand shows that the country’s youth aren’t willing to compromise. The parliament has delayed its vote on whether to allow amendments to the constitution for at least two months but this only highlights how out-of-touch the country’s sitting government is with the demands of the younger generations. Past popular protest movements in Thailand placed more emphasis on emerging political leaders than on structural democratic reforms—they were also happy to allow the old king, Bhumibol Adulyadej, father of Vajiralongkorn, to intervene in politics.
As Panupong Jadnok, one of the student leaders, put it, “You can see how long we’ve been fighting for democracy. We tried to change the regime to a democracy, to start a democratic transition, we’ve tried this so many times. And we failed every time.”
One of the richest monarchies in the world is wobbling
King Vajiralongkorn has been unpopular since he assumed power in 2016 after the death of his respected father. The king now spends only a few weeks in Thailand each year at most, having spent most of the pandemic to date at a hotel in Bavaria with a harem of women. Though even foreign journalists have been unwilling to openly cover the Thai monarchy until now, one recent story referred to Vajiralongkorn as “famously lecherous.”
Beyond lese majeste and questions of leadership, the Thai democracy movement is calling for reform of the monarchy’s finances. Estimates of King Vajiralongkorn’s wealth range from US$30 to $60 billion, making the Thai monarchy at least the fifth-wealthiest in the world. In 2018, the king took direct control of the palace assets, further removing the monarchy’s wealth from all possibility of public accountability. King Vajiralongkorn also owns 38 aircraft and may be the fifth-largest private landowner in the world.
The monarchy’s political power, as well as its immunity from public scrutiny, is deeply intertwined with that of the military.
As progressive lawmaker Rangsiman Rome reportedly said during the recent constitutional reform debate, “There is no one in this country capable of toppling the monarchy institution, except the army.” While the pro-democracy movement has explicitly said it doesn’t aim to topple the monarchy, it aims to make the palace accountable to the people.
“We don’t want to topple the institution. Our proposal is reform, not revolution,” Panusaya “Rung” Sithijirawattankul, one of the movement’s student leaders, told ABC News recently.
A new chance for democracy?
Following the parliament’s decision to delay its vote on constitutional reform, some progressive lawmakers walked out in protest. But the new reform movement is notable in part because it isn’t tied to any established political leaders, especially the historically left-leaning red shirts of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
“This is different from previous rounds of political protests in Thailand which required support and mobilization by political parties, by certain groups. But this time it’s all fluid and organic,” said Sunai Phasuk, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The theme of the protests this time is not just about demanding a fresh election, demanding a new constitution. They’re talking about making sovereign power in Thailand belong to Thai people genuinely, without intervention by anyone—by the military, by the court or any institution.”
Abolishing or amending the current constitution is central to the new pro-democracy movement as it enshrines the seemingly immutable power of Thailand’s military and monarchy. The constitution was drafted by the military junta in 2017 under then-general and now-Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha. Though it was passed by popular referendum, the process was highly controlled by the military through suppression, misinformation and intimidation. After the referendum, King Vajiralongkorn also made six changes to the constitution that increased the power of the monarchy.
The current protests show that many in Thailand, especially young people, will no longer accept a muted, gutted form of democracy; they’re demanding a government that is genuinely built by the people, with the aim of creating a country that works for the many, rather than the few.
“Thailand has had the largest wealth gap in the world for years,” said Panupong. “Two-thirds of the resources are in the hands of only one percent… Thailand has had this problem for a very long time. We’re out here today to ensure that we’ll be able to live in a country with a more hopeful future.”