Thai anti-government protesters rally in the thousands, as challenge to the once-untouchable monarchy grows

On Sunday, thousands rallied at Bangkok’s Democracy Monument, singing and dancing in a festive atmosphere and periodically bursting into chants of “Prayuth, get out!”, a reference to Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha who, after taking power in a 2014 coup, won disputed elections last year. The vote was widely seen as rigged, an exercise enabling the ruling junta to extend its grip on power through the perceived legitimacy of the ballot box.

A few hours after the rally started, a crowd estimated at as many as 10,000 people spilled onto the surrounding streets in one of the biggest anti-government demonstrations since the coup. The rally, which was organized by a coalition of young people from several schools and universities, also called for parliament to be dissolved and for Thailand’s constitution to be amended.

“I want democracy,” said a 15-year-old student who had joined the rally with a classmate. She did not give her name for fear of repercussions, including from her parents and teachers. “Right now, under the military, our country is not getting better. Many young people are arrested and threatened simply because they speak their opinion.”

“We want the dictator to get out,” she said, referring to Prayuth.

Over the summer, Thai students have been leading the protests against the constitution and the powers it affords the military. Along with questioning the disappearance of activists critical of the military and the monarchy, the demonstrations have also become a catchall for other liberal and social causes such as LGBT and women’s rights.

But this past week, for the first time, student leaders took aim at the monarchy, detailing what they see as its problematic ability to intervene in politics, as well as the wealth of King Vajiralongkorn and his influence over the junta.

“We are calling for the reform of the Thai monarchy, like in England, where the royal family does not directly intervene in politics,” Panusaya Sithijirawattanakul, a third-year student at Thammasat University who led that protest, said in an interview. “Thailand may succeed in becoming a developed country, if it isn’t stuck in old traditions that hold back progress.”

Panusaya’s words, under Thai law, could land her in jail for up to 15 years. Thailand has among the strictest lèse-majesté laws in the world, which has protected the monarchy from open, outright criticism. Even in coffee shops and conversations at home, Thais often use nicknames to refer to the king or use pop culture references — like Harry Potter or “The Hunger Games” — to subtly signal dissatisfaction with the system.

Prayuth said at a cabinet meeting Tuesday that the students have potentially violated the lèse-majesté laws and that the student rally must be investigated to determine who financed and instigated it.

Although Thailand moved from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy in a bloodless revolution in 1932, the palace retains wide-ranging powers and is deeply embedded in the economic and cultural fabric of the country. Vajiralongkorn, the present king, took the throne in 2016 after the death of his father, the revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who reigned for seven decades and was the world’s longest-ruling monarch when he died.

Since then, the shine has rubbed off the monarchy, with criticism directed at Vajiralongkorn for the time he spends abroad in Germany, the wealth the palace has accumulated and its role in supporting Prayuth’s government despite its undemocratic nature.

When Vajiralongkorn assumed the throne, he moved to have direct oversight over the royal family’s assets, rather than letting state agencies monitor them.

“We don’t want to overthrow the king, and we don’t mind if he tries to adapt to this new era,” said one 16-year old on Sunday, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of breaching the lèse-majesté laws. “But he cannot be above the law.”

Anger has heightened in Thailand amid the covid-19 outbreak and the resulting recession, which has exacerbated the country’s deep inequalities.

The day after the rally led by Panusaya and other students, the king flew back to Thailand from Germany to perform a traditional Mother’s Day ceremony but returned to Europe the next day.

“During military rule over the past six years, the monarchy has been used by the military junta to legitimize human rights violations, like the suppression of freedoms and a crackdown on opponents of the military who are students, young activists and intellectuals,” said Pichit Likitkijsomboon, a political analyst and a former economist at Thammasat University.

The students’ call for the government to leave the monarchy out of politics, he added, is “logical” and should be legal.

In recent days, Panusaya moved out of her dormitory at Thammasat University, after police officers appeared there. Parit “Penguin” Chiwarak, a student activist who has been leading the protests, and five others were arrested. Parit, who has been released on bail, was charged with sedition.

The arrests have served to further fuel anger, swelling the crowd Sunday. Some participants said they were inspired by the actions of the student protesters and felt it was important to show solidarity.

“I came here because I wanted to support the people who are brave enough to speak out about the problems swept under the carpet in Thailand,” said Saifon, 28, using her first name only for fear of retribution. “I am empowered by those people.”

Royalists, meanwhile, wearing yellow — the color of the monarchy — staged a counter-rally Sunday near the anti-government protesters, although in far smaller numbers.

Before the coup in 2014, Bangkok experienced years of political unrest pitting these “yellow shirt” protesters loyal to the monarchy against “red shirt” protesters from rural areas who supported ousted former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. The 2014 coup was the 12th since 1932. The protests this time, however, have overwhelmingly been led by young people who no longer define themselves as “yellow” or “red” but say they want greater democratic freedoms and equality.

Human rights activists say they worry that the pro-democracy protesters will face a wider and more violent crackdown. In 1976, Thammasat University was the scene of a massacre of students by Thai police and right-wing bystanders. Students were shot and beaten to death. Unofficial estimates say more than a hundred were killed.

Panusaya and other student leaders, however, have remained resolute.
“It just makes me feel odd that such intimidation can happen in a country that is said to be democratic,” Panusaya said. “All it does is make me want to fight more. I must speak more, to make this country safe for everyone who wants to speak their minds.”

Paritta Wangkiat in Bangkok contributed to this report.