Tens of thousands of people recently massed close to Thailand’s royal palace demanding the resignation of the Prime Minister Prayut Chan-O-Cha, a former army chief who led a coup in 2014. The protests took place on the anniversary of a 2006 coup that ousted ex-PM Thaksin Shinawatra.
A major rally calling for PM Chan-O-Cha to step down gathered outside the royal palace in Bangkok on last Saturday, in what organizers claimed was the biggest demonstration to date by the burgeoning pro-democracy movement.
Organizers predicted as many as 50,000 people will march over two days in an area of the capital historically associated with political protests.
Police said at least 18,000 people took part on Saturday, while Reuters said the turnout was at least 30,000.
Police had “actually remained quite lenient” during the day, in the face of the sheer size of the crowd. “That might have realized that if they were to crack down on those protesters, they might have an even bigger problem at hand,” he said.
At the same time, the police had warned the demonstrators to stay peaceful.
An unprecedented wave of protests is sweeping Thailand over recent months, led by high school and university students who are calling for major democratic reforms including reforming the monarchy. Some have also broken a longstanding taboo, and risked prison sentences, to demand the power and wealth of the country’s monarchy be curbed.
Protests have been building in the country since mid-July, with youth-led groups demanding a new constitution and elections, as well as the removal of Prayut.
An estimated 10,000 protesters turned out for the last major rally on August 16.
The organizers are a group of students of Bangkok’s Thammasat University that has been among the most vocal about the royal family’s role in Thailand, and who on Saturday asserted that they hope “to adapt it to society”.
“I believe the institution can be modernized,” said a rallygoer in his mid-20s who declined to be named.
Another protester wore a fake crown and a shirt that said, “please realize this country belongs to the people.”
Thailand has seen a regular series of putsches by the arch-royalist military since the end of royal absolutism in 1932.
The king was not in Thailand Saturday and has spent much of his time in Europe since taking the throne from his late father in 2016.
Among the protesters were many of Thaksin Shinawatra’s red shirt followers, veterans of clashes a decade ago with pro-establishment yellow shirts.
Young people say they are fed up with an establishment that has undermined their democratic rights and the country’s progress.
Demonstrations began on university campuses at the start of the year in response to a court decision to dissolve Future Forward, a prominent opposition party. The party was especially popular among young people during last year’s election – a vote that was supposed to return Thailand to democracy following a 2014 military coup but was instead marred by claims of irregularities, and which critics say was skewed in favor of the army.
The emergence of the coronavirus pandemic halted the demonstrations, but only temporarily. Under lockdown, frustration with the authorities mounted. While Thailand has managed to avoid a major coronavirus outbreak, the economic impact of the pandemic has been devastating, and has highlighted the country’s yawning gaps in equality.
Online, anger among protesters increasingly targeted the monarchy, with the hashtag “#whydoweneedaking?” posted more than a million times.
In June, discontent flared further when it was reported that pro-democracy activist Wanchalearm Satsaksi had been abducted in Cambodia. Rights groups say he is the ninth exiled activist to disappear in recent years. The government and military have denied involvement.
One of the protesters’ slogans is “let it end with our generation”. They are tired of a cycle of coups that has dominated Thailand’s political history.
Students are mostly united around calls for the dissolution of parliament, an end to harassment of government critics, and for changes to the military-backed constitution.
Some have also called for reforms to the country’s powerful and wealthy monarchy, which they say is too close to the military and which they accuse of interfering in politics.
A recent protest organized by the United Front of Thammasat, which has issued 10 demands for monarchy reform, was attended by tens of thousands of people. The group has called for the king’s budget to be cut and for a separation of his private funds from the crown assets. They have also called for an end to laws that forbid criticism of the monarchy.
King Maha Vajiralongkorn assumed the throne following the death of his father, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, in 2016 and has since strengthened his authority, bringing the wealth of the crown and key army units under his direct control.
Protesters say they are not calling for the abolition of the monarchy, but for it to be modernized. Their demands have angered royalists.
Thailand’s royal family is shielded from criticism by a strict lèse majesté law that carries a sentence of up to 15 years, though the prime minister, Prayuth Chan-ocha, has said the king requested that nobody be prosecuted under the law. Dozens of protesters have been charged with various other offences after taking part in protests in recent months, according to the group Thai Lawyers for Human Rights.
Prayuth has said he will consider some of the protesters’ demands regarding the constitution, but has said the monarchy should not be criticized.
The Royal Palace has made no comment on the protests and the demands for reform.
Rights groups say the authorities are attempting to contain the protests by arresting activists, and by pressuring universities and parents to stop students from demanding monarchy reform. The authorities have also ordered Facebook to geo-block content that is critical of the royal family, including a page that had more than a million members. The group’s creator, Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a self-exiled critic of the monarchy, has already set up a new page that has surpassed the last group’s previous membership.
The student-led, anti-monarchy protest movement has been building since July with several rallies per week.
After the King took the throne in 2016, the palace required revisions to a new constitution that gave him greater emergency powers.
He has since taken personal control over some army units and palace assets worth tens of billions of dollars.
“Thai politics has not been developed, it keeps going around in a circle. Coup d’etat, election, coup d’etat, election,” said a protest leader.
“If we want to have a better life, there must be good politics. So we have to fix the problems.”
In August, the group held a “Harry Potter vs He Who Must Not Be Named”-themed protest with pictures of villain Lord Voldemort as a not-so-subtle reference to being banned from speaking out about Thai King Maha Vajiralongkorn.
The three-finger salute from The Hunger Games has also made its way into demonstrations as a symbol for democracy.
By late August, the subtleties were replaced with unprecedented and very public demands, including curbing the King’s powers over the constitution, politicians, the armed forces, and public funds, and abolishing the lese majeste law.
Some older generations are supporting the students’ cause, according to Kanokrat Lertchoosakul, a political science lecturer from Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University.
Others had been “shocked” they had dared to call for a “sacred, untouchable and beloved institution” to be reformed.
“The demands have been the most radical demands in Thai political history,” Dr Lertchoosakul said.
“[Older generations] would not dare to speak out about what we really think. Whether we love or hate anything, we have to keep it inside. This is what we are taught since we were very young.”
Not everyone agrees with the young protesters.
Thai royalists have expressed their dismay at what the protesters have been saying and have held rallies of their own.
At one of the largest in August, about 1,200 members of the Thai Loyal group waved national flags and held portraits of the King to show their unwavering support for the monarchy.
Prominent politician Warong Dechgitvigrom launched the group because he said he felt the monarchy was under attack.
“The point of our group is to protect the monarchy with knowledge and facts,” Dechgitvigrom told the Reuters.
“The monarchy institution has no part in governing the country. The institution is the moral support that connects the people together.”
Thai Loyal has also set out three demands: No dissolution of parliament, maximum legal action against anyone who seeks to topple the monarchy, and no change to the constitution unless it is done through proper channels.
“I want the new generation to appreciate the country, religion and monarchy as much as they can because without any one of them, the country will not be able to survive,” Somporn Sooklert, a demonstrator at the rally, said.
While protesters have braced themselves for arrest under the country’s lese majeste law, PM Chan-o-cha, said the King had requested no prosecutions.
Police have said they are considering charging protest leaders who held a demonstration on September 19, but have not yet done so, nor have they said what those charges could be.
In the Bangkok plaza where a marker commemorating the 1932 introduction of democracy in the kingdom vanished mysteriously three years ago, they pressed a new metal plaque into fresh concrete recently. The inscription read, in part: “This country belongs to the people and is not the property of the monarch.”
But the golden disc was ripped from the ground and police filed complaints against demonstrators for damaging a historic site.
“Even if it’s removed,” said a protest leader, “it’s still in the people’s mind.”
In a Southeast Asian kingdom that leans heavily on symbolism, Thailand’s democracy movement has taken aim at the gilded emblems and elaborate rituals that have protected its monarchy, one of the wealthiest and most powerful in the world.
Driving four months of growing street demonstrations is a small band of young activists are pushing for constitutional changes that would rein in the monarchy and its allies in the military who have ruled the country since a 2014 coup.
A protest leader said: “We don’t believe that we are going to kick out the king and that’s it, or that we will kick out the military and that’s it. What we are fighting for is at the structural level: a true constitutional monarchy that really limits the king and the military’s powers.”
The country is now seeing the willingness of young demonstrators to openly challenge the king, a mercurial figure who has wielded more power than his predecessors and been shielded from criticism by harsh lese-majeste laws.
Thailand’s youth were increasingly frustrated by the military’s dominance over public life, its rewriting of the constitution to retain power in 2019 elections and its fealty to King Maha Vajiralongkorn, who has held the throne since 2016.
The 68-year-old king, who resides in Germany with a large entourage, has changed the constitution to allow him to rule from overseas and taken personal ownership of the crown’s fortune, estimated at $70 billion. Married for the fourth time, he was the first king in nearly a century to appoint a royal consort — a companion in addition to his wife. The woman was stripped of her titles and disappeared for “misbehavior and disloyalty” last year, only to be reinstated this month with little explanation.
In 2017, the original plaque marking the end of the absolute monarchy disappeared from the plaza known as Sanam Luang. It was one of several monuments to the 1932 revolution that were removed without explanation, an apparent effort “to rewrite modern Thailand’s history … while deprecating the ideals of democracy,” as the International Crisis Group wrote in a recent report.
Since the closing years of the previous monarch, the king’s late father, Thailand had begun to feel like a feudal society, with an elite maintaining a stranglehold on politics and business while the poorest Thais fell further behind. Income inequality is rising while the economy is projected to shrink by 5% this year, one of the sharpest declines in Asia.
The demonstrations reflect “a truly broad-based movement,” said Tyrell Haberkorn, a professor of Southeast Asian studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “The space for youth activists, red shirts, southern Thai activists, and LGBTQI+ activists within one movement reflects the very form of democracy that they demand.”