21 August 2020

Thailand protests highlight growing disillusionment with the country's monarchy

In a country where the monarchy is traditionally revered and public criticism of the royal family is frowned upon, recent mass protests in the country openly questioning the role of the king marks a dramatic shift in public sentiment, particularly among the youth.

Student-led groups have staged almost daily protests in Bangkok and across the country since the end of July, calling for the dissolution of parliament, for the military-drafted constitution to be rewritten and for an end to the harassment of activists, as well as several other demands. Mass protest movements are hardly a novelty in Thailand; the country has experienced paralysing street protests multiple times since 2005, including the most recent one in 2014 that led to a coup d'état and the establishment of the current military-dominated government under former general Prayuth Chan-o-cha.

While the removal of the military from politics has always been a rallying cry for previous pro-democracy movements, what is different about these current protests is that demonstrators are much more vocal in their demands for the monarchy to step-back from governance. Thailand has some of the strictest lese-majeste laws in the world, with threats of up to 15 years in prison for criticism of the king or the royal family. The fact that this has failed to act as a deterrent for the growing pro-democracy protest movement indicates a strong sentiment among the country's new generation of activists and student leaders for change, after years of frustration with a system of governance where democracy is subservient to the nexus of the military and the monarchy.

On 16 August 2020, over 10,000 people turned up at the iconic Democracy Monument in central Bangkok, built in 1932 to mark the end of absolute monarchy, calling for 'genuine democracy' and for the king to step back and allow democratic processes to prevail. The protest was one of the largest demonstrations since 2014 and signaled a groundswell of support for the pro-democracy movement, which has previously been largely limited to student activists from a handful of prominent universities in the country. The movement has now spread nationwide and has unified diverse interest groups, ranging from LGBTQ activists to environmentalists to Malay Muslim separatists from the country's Deep South.

The suppression of the pro-democracy movement by the military-dominated government, culminating in the dissolution of the popular Future Forward Party (FFP) in February 2020 by the Constitutional Court was what initially triggered the protests. While protests petered out due to COVID-19 restrictions, they have resurfaced again since July. The economic impact of COVID-19 coupled with the unpopularity of King Maha Vajiralongkorn, who is perceived as being irresponsible and intervenes in politics, added further fuel to the protests. King Vajiralongkorn hardly spends time in the country and lives a lavish lifestyle abroad. His erratic behaviour and his strong support for Prayuth's regime has tarnished the reputation of the monarchy, in stark contrast to his father King Bhumibol, who was revered and largely seen to have been above politics.

The core group of student protesters have laid-out a 10-point list of demands. In addition to the dissolution of parliament, ending the harassment of activists and rewriting the constitution, other key demands include the resignation of Prayuth as prime minister, a reversal of a 2019 order that transferred two army regiments to the king's personal command, and a 2017 law that granted him full control of the crown's multi-billion dollar property portfolio. In a bold move, they also urged the king to be accountable to elected institutions and refrain from involving himself in politics. More mass protests are planned in September despite an ongoing government crackdown; authorities have already arrested several prominent activists including lawyer Anon Nampa for seditious speech. Going forward, more arrests and intimidation of activists are almost certain but the nationwide protest movement will likely continue due to the deep grievances that have been laid to bare and a long-standing frustration of the country's political elite.