A growing movement among students has called for political reform in Thailand. In recent days, the protests have taken a surprising turn, writes an analyst in London for the BBC.
On a stage on an outside city campus at one of Thailand̵
Her demands, if a monarchy is accountable to the country’s elected institutions, which moderates its use of public funds, stays out of politics and does not exercise control over important military units, would go unnoticed in most countries.
In Thailand, they are nothing but revolutionary.
Thais are taught from birth that the monarchy is the keystone that holds the country together, the institution that embodies the national character.
Every new Thai constitution – and there have been 19 in modern times, along with a dozen military coups – has said at the top that “the King should be boring in a position of reverent worship” and that “No person should expose the King to all kinds of accusations or actions “.
These provisions are supported by Article 112 of the Penal Code, known as the May Majesty Act, which submits to anyone who criticizes the royal family for secret trials and long prison sentences.
- Thailand’s read-majesty team explained
In recent times, critics who fled to neighboring countries have been abducted and murdered. Thais learn to respect, reverence and love the monarchy, but also to fear the consequences of talking about it.
A “dark hand”?
The issues raised on that stage at Thammasat University on Monday have previously been openly discussed only by those who live safely in exile, far from Thailand or whisper in the integrity of the home.
The Thammasat Manifesto has caused an uprising.
The students have been accused of “crossing the line”, of going too far, even by some of those who support their other demands for reform.
Senators appointed by the former military junta, and an important political crutch for the government of junta-leader-turned-Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, have called for legal action against student leaders for an investigation into how they funded Monday’s spectacular-produced protest, and in which “dark hand” asked the young people to make such outrageous demands.
The powerful army commander, General Apirat Kongsompong, suggested that the protesters suffered from “chung charts”, “hatred of the nation”, a term previously used to gather ultranationalist Thais against perceived enemies and a disease, General Apirat told soldiers it was much worse than Covid-19.
The student leader who read out the manifesto, Panusaya Sithijirawattanakul, has since stayed mostly on her campus, planned another rally and looked nervously at the dressed-up police who are now constantly monitoring her.
The worrying thing is that some ultra-localists are raising the spectacle of October 1976, when police and right-wing vaccinators opened fire on left-wing students at Thammasat University, killing dozens, lynching some and then beating their bodies.
The shockingly brutal attack was provoked by a rumor about a small number of students against the then Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, the current king.
Veterans of the 1976 upheaval do not think it will happen again.
Former Prime Minister Chaturon Chaiseng, who was among a number of student activists who spent several years hiding from communist insurgency after the 1976 massacre, says a repeat of such violence would be very risky today.
There are so many complaints against the government at the moment, he says, which the students share with the wider Thai community.
These protests take place during an almost perfect storm of bad news for the Thai government.
Despite managing an impressive inclusion of Covid-19 coronavirus, without local infections in almost three months, the collapse of tourism has hit the economy very hard and drawn attention to one of the world’s widest gaps between rich and poor.
The decision earlier this year to dissolve a dynamic new political party, which had attracted the support of many younger voters, gave them the feeling that the military-dominated political system was denying them a voice.
It was exacerbated by the abduction and assassination of a Thai activist in Cambodia, who is blamed for some elements near the palace, and then by the drop of all criminal charges against a member of one of Thailand’s richest families in connection with the killing of a police officer. in a hit-and-run incident eight years ago.
Since the Covid-19 crisis began, King Vajiralongkorn has spent almost all of his time in a hotel in Germany, which has received a Twitter hashtag #whydoweneedaking?, Which was relocated more than a million times.
The voices of the next generation
The protest leaders have been careful to frame their demands within the constitution.
The first person to break the taboo, a week before the manifestation of Thammasat, was human rights lawyer Anon Nampa, who spoke on a Harry Potter theme and did not see unlike the fictional young wizard.
He stressed that he wanted to reform, not overthrow, the constitutional monarchy.
He focused in particular on the vast assets of the Crown Property Bureau, which under the beleagured King Bhumibol had been listed as trustworthy for the benefit of the Thai people, but has now been declared the king’s personal property, making him by far the richest person in Thailand.
Anon also questioned King Vajiralongkorn’s decision to take personal leadership of all military units based in Bangkok, something he believes could not be compatible with a democratic, constitutional monarchy.
“It must be done,” he said of his call for responsibility.
“That’s why I chose to speak honestly, to honor my own integrity, the integrity of the audience and out of respect for the monarchy. Because if we do not speak honestly about it, we will never understand it.”
Anon Nampa and another activist, Panupong Jaadnok, have since been arrested on charges of violating Thailand’s sweeping sedition law, an alternative to His Majesty’s law, which the king has said he no longer wants to be so widespread.
But far from silent talks about the monarchy, their demands have now been taken up by a student movement that has been agitating for change for many months, and which is active on campus around the country and also includes high school students.
We spoke with two young students in political science who have become involved in the movement, both thoughtful and articulate, with the hope of a good career after university.
Yet their comments on the monarchy, even if expressed in moderation and reason, would have been unthinkable even a year ago.
“This generation knows the fact that the monarchy is involved in politics and that it affects the lives of Thais,” said one.
“So it is fair and democratic for us to talk about everyone involved in politics, be it the military or the monarchy.”
“We must try to start talking about it and make it a new norm in society to talk about the monarchy,” said the other.
“I think the silent majority wants to talk about it, because if you do not touch something, if you do not reform it, it will become rotten and collapse.”
There are young people on the other side, but how many are difficult to measure right now. The potential for clashes, confused or spontaneous, is real.
At a small pro-monarchy demonstration in Bangkok’s historic Royal Quarter this month, a student told the BBC that “the three pillars of this country, nation, religion and monarchy, must be revered, not folded down to be played with like this. It is not the right way under a constitutional monarchy. “
“We do not come out to fight with them. We have come out to show the power of the other side. Thailand has a long history. It cannot be brought down by those who want to slander the monarchy,” they said.
This is indefinite territory for Thailand, and no one knows what will happen next.
The government, which consists mainly of conservatives, military and royalists, seems uncertain about how it will react.
An overly harsh reaction risks angering a public that is already frustrated with other issues. Yet it cannot be seen that it fails to defend the monarchy.
“The family is out of the bottle,” said Professor Thongchai Winichakul, a historian at the University of Wisconsin and another survivor of the 1976 massacre.
“Society will not end, change will not end. The only thing we can do is make sure that change takes place with as little bloodshed as possible. Thais have been gossiping about the monarchy in private for years and then taught their children to praise it. lavishly public, to be hypocritical. All these young protesters have done is to bring out the gossip in the open. “
Read His Majesty and other laws, and the threat they pose to BBC staff limits some of our reporting that relates directly to members of the Thai royal family.