It’s a recurring scene in politics through the last century and into the 21st – masses of demonstrators turning out to tear down a president or a prime minister. But mass protests against a king or queen seemed to be a relic, a very 20th-century thing.
Until now. Growing numbers of Thais last month started taking to the streets to protest against not only their prime minister but also against their king. The case against a prime minister who seized power in a military coup seems pretty conventional. But a king?
Why are tens of thousands of Thais, in protests that have now spread across most of the country’s provinces, risking jail to demand that the Australian-educated King Vajiralongkorn, also styled Rama X, be deprived of his powers and privileges? Especially when we have long heard of the godlike reverence in which the Thai people hold their king.
But the old king is dead. Reverence for the quarter-millennium reign of the Chakri dynasty appears largely to have gone with him. Apart from the Thais on the streets, more than 1 million have joined a Facebook group, Royalist Marketplace, to debate the future of the monarchy.
To anyone familiar with Thailand, this is breathtaking. There wasn’t just a taboo against criticising the monarch, there was – and still is – a 15-year jail term for the crime of lese-majeste. The police have arrested a few of the main organisers and unsuccessfully tried to force the shutdown of the Facebook group but the authorities so far are treading carefully as the protests continue to build. “It looks like these very brave and astonishingly young protesters are stepping up prepared and braced for the consequences,” says Professor Nicholas Farrelly of the University of Tasmania, an expert on south east Asia. “This is a striking historical reordering.”
Two student activists from Chulalongkorn University write that the protests have created “an atmosphere of hope that has been missing in our country since the military seized power in a 2014 coup”. Netiwit Chotiphatphaisal and Suphanut Aneknumwong say that the protest leaders have “highlighted two key principles: opposition to military coups and so-called ‘grand coalition’ governments, which have often been used to prevent change, and the desire for a truly constitutional monarchy”.
But hold on. Thailand’s absolute monarch was dethroned in a bloodless revolution in 1932. Isn’t the Thai monarchy already a constitutional one, carrying out ceremonial duties only?
Vajiralongkorn is at the centre of this storm because of who he is, what he’s been doing and what he’s a part of. Long before he took the throne three years ago, he was unpopular. In contrast to his much-loved sister, he showed little interest in the welfare of ordinary Thais. Vajiralongkorn has a reputation as a bad-tempered bully and a playboy.
The Australian officers who studied with him at the Royal Military College Duntroon found him to be a very ordinary student and an unimpressive individual. A BBC profile of him reports that in 1981 his mother, Queen Sirikit, described “her son as ‘a bit of a Don Juan’ and suggesting that he preferred spending his weekends with beautiful women rather than performing duties. In a rare audience with Thai journalists in 1992, he denied the rumours that he was involved with mafia-like figures and underworld businesses.”
A Thai who circulated this BBC profile was jailed under the lese-majeste law. In a further step to minimise scrutiny, the King of Thailand lives mostly in Germany. Since the pandemic struck, he’s hardly set foot in Thailand. This helped galvanise opinion against him.
And then there’s what he’s been doing since assuming the throne. He quickly transferred the royal family’s official asset holdings into his personal accounts. At a stroke, that made him the richest monarch in the world with some $US30 billion in wealth.
Two months after his coronation, when it was revealed that he had married for the fourth time, he appointed an official concubine, reviving a practice abandoned more than a century ago. Within three months he’d banished her from the palace, reportedly to a military jail.
“His dislocation of the ambitions and interests of young people in Thailand is now obvious and widely criticised.”
And then there’s what he’s part of. The longstanding power elites of Bangkok, including the army, use Vajiralongkorn, as they used his father, to legitimise their grip on power. After the billionaire political upstart Thaksin Shinawatra won the 2001 election and began redistributing wealth and privilege, the establishment closed ranks against him. The army staged a coup, with the blessing of the then king, Vajiralongkorn’s father.
Ever since, the palace has stood with the army and the political establishment in keeping Thaksin out of the country and his Red Shirt mass support movement off the streets. Much of his support resurged in a new political party, Future Forward. But just when it seemed some change might be possible, the party was outlawed in February.
That outrage was followed by the pandemic, which the government used to impose even harsher controls. “Far from helping the elite, the pandemic has helped to make clear that the government under its current leadership is not competent to deal with the huge challenges facing the country,” write the student activists.
At the same time, the plucky protesters in Hong Kong served as an inspiration for Thailand’s youth. Thailand’s demonstrators have added a touch of their own, adopting the three-fingered salute of the Hunger Games movie, a sign of defiance of authoritarianism.
So it all seems to have come together against the king – the combination of a distasteful persona with abuse of office and complicity with an oppressive elite is an explosive formula.
If the movement continues it seems fated to be tested against what Farrelly calls “the unwavering strength of the armed forces and their commitment to use violence to keep Thailand the way they want it to look”. The protesters want to keep the movement peaceful. Unfortunately, that would be a case of hope over experience in Thailand’s long struggle to find modernity.
Peter Hartcher is international editor.