“If the people [disagreed], it was over,” recalled Panusaya Sithijirawattanakul, about the day in August when she stood above a crowd of thousands and delivered a radical speech, a summarization of months of discontent and protests. The 21-year-old passionately called to end Thailand’s strict lese-majeste law, which protects royalty from all criticisms, and reform the government. Sithijirawattanakul’s bold stance, along with thousands of other protestors, is a direct affront to the nation’s untouchable government and the outpouring of years of dissatisfaction.
What would prompt the Thai people to speak out so strongly?The unrest began to simmer earlier this year when the popular Future Forward Party, which advocated for decentralization, the breakup of monopolies, and separation of military and politics, was banned in the Constitutional Court. Many citizens, already feeling stifled by the country’s limited freedom of speech, saw this as a final blow to any semblance of democracy. In addition, many Thais resent the current Thai King, who is staggeringly wealthy, and yet financially secretive and who demands perfect loyalty yet has lived luxuriously in a palace in Germany. One of King Maha Vajiralongkorn’s striking moves since his ascension to the throne in 2016 was to transfer the vast holdings in the Crown Property Bureau, which had previously managed the royal family’s wealth, to his personal ownership, making him the richest monarch in the world. Those assets give him “control of more wealth than the reported riches of the Saudi King, the sultan of Brunei, and the British royal family combined,” a reporter for the LA Times noted. This illuminates the imbalanced social structure that favors the wealthy and well-connected, while the economy becomes increasingly unstable, hurting normal Thais.
For three months, protestors have held frequent demonstrations. They desire a complete reformation of the current government, demanding the replacement of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, the dissolution of the Parliament, new elections, a new Constitution that contains freedom of expression, and accountability for the monarchy. Protestors hold signs, carrying messages such as “You have awakened a sleeping giant.” The three-fingered salute, reclaimed from The Hunger Games, became a symbol of the protestors’ defiance of the government. The government arrested many protest leaders already, and still others are sought on warrant. On October 15, 2020, the government imposed a state of emergency, banning gatherings of more than five people and any journalism or broadcasting which may threaten national security. However, this did not intimidate the angry protestors, who returned in thousands, demanding the release of the 40 some protestors who were arrested earlier. The government retaliated with more arrests, the use of tear-gas laced water cannons, and police force to suppress demonstrations.
The country is no stranger to unrest. It has seen 13 successful coups since the end of absolute royal rule in 1932. The latest of these, which happened in 2014, was a military coup led by the current Prime Minister, who remained leader despite heated elections last year. Many fear that these current protests will dissolve into bloodshed and chaos, similar to situations when the government police killed dissidents in 1973, 1976, 1992, and 2010. Others worry that this will cripple Thai efforts to recover from the economic toll of COVID-19. For better or for worse, Thailand will never be the same again as protestors have broken the spell of ideological suppression.
I had the special privilege of interviewing a native Thai woman about this issue. She attributed the growing unrest to the new culture of the younger generations, saying, “The old generation, they maybe know what the king did but they don’t say anything. This new generation, they are smart with technology, they know things very fast, and they aren’t afraid to say something.” Many of the protestors are young university or even high school students, exposed to more of the outside world through social media and unwilling to let corruption and injustice pass by unnoticed. Much has changed since the days when speaking about the government or the king at all was taboo. When I asked the woman whether she still stood for the national anthem, which plays before every film in theaters and twice daily from radios, she answered, “We still stand for the anthem for the 9th King…He was humble, he had one wife, and he helped the Thai people a lot.” The 9th King, King Maha Vajiralongkorn’s father, is still widely respected by the Thai people, especially for his many successful campaigns to end drug wars and better Thailand’s economy. The memory of his rule offers the Thai people hope for a better government and a peaceful monarchy even in the modern world, but whether or not this dream can be realized, the next months will tell.
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Ratcliffe, Rebecca. “The King and I: the Student Risking Jail by Challenging Thailand’s Monarchy.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 13 Oct. 2020, www.theguardian.com/world/2020/oct/13/panusaya-sithijirawattanakul-the-student-taking-on-thailands-monarchy-.