Thai youth to defy warnings with Bangkok rally, testing government and monarchy
Pro-democracy students were gathering to rally in Bangkok on Sunday, in a protest set to test the depth of support for a bold, unpredictable youth movement which is targeting Thailand’s government and making unprecedented calls for reforms of the monarchy.
Thousands were expected at the city’s Democracy Monument, despite the arrests of three key activists over the last week, as calls for a new constitution, dissolution of parliament and end to judicial harassment of dissenters gather momentum.
A few dozen pro-monarchy supporters, mostly old, many holding portraits of the king, gathered ahead of the protest, vowing to observe the rally and report any acts that could be considered insulting to the royal family.
One speaker on a megaphone said: “You can tackle our government, that’s up to you, but don’t touch our monarchy”.
Thailand has a grim history of violent street politics, broadly pitting pro-democracy forces against the royalist establishment and its backers in the powerful Thai military which is embedded in the kingdom’s politics.
There are fears the latest student movement could provoke a violent backlash from conservative forces, including the government led by premier Prayuth Chan-ocha and the arch-royalist military he once led.
Since July 18, students have massed on public walkways, secondary schools and campuses with inventive displays of dissent – including a “Hamtaro run” popularised by a Japanese cartoon and a Harry Potter-themed cosplay protest.
But a rally on August 10 at Thammasat University burst beyond the boundaries of any of Thailand’s previous rounds of protest, by calling for reforms of the Thai monarchy to ensure it remained constrained within the constitution.
Their 10-point demands – which did not call for the overthrow of the monarchy – have stunned Thais reared on public reverence of the monarchy.
It is headed by King Maha Vajiralongkorn and protected from criticism by one of the world’s toughest royal defamation laws, which carries up to 15 years in jail for each breach.
“We want Thailand to be a fully democratic state governed as a true constitutional monarchy where monarchs exercise their power within the boundaries of the constitution,” 23-year-old Tattep “Ford” Ruangprapaikitseree of Free Youth, one of the main organisers of Sunday’s rally, told This Week in Asia.
The king, who spends much of his time in Germany, has been assertive in his use of power since ascending the throne in late 2016, reorganising the crown’s immense fortune under his office as well as appointing army units under his command.
Establishment figures warn dragging the monarchy into public discourse carries great risk. “The kids have crossed the line. Things could kick off very easily,” said Somchai Sawangkarn, one of 250 government-appointed senators.
“We’ve seen this movie before … we know how it could end.”
Thailand’s army chief Apirat Kongsompong gave an ominous warning on August 6, describing people “who hate the nation” as a worse disease than Covid-19.
Over recent weeks, groups of royalist supporters have also come out for counter rallies vowing to defend the monarchy. But so far they have been small.
The students are also expressing wider discontent with Thailand’s sharply hierarchical society; inequality which has widened under Prayuth’s tenure as premier, curbs on free expression and an economy now unable to provide them with jobs.
Inspired by young Hong Kong pro-democracy protesters, they are organising across social media by taking on the kingdom’s political and business elite through satirical memes and Twitter hashtags.
In a sign of the strength of their challenge, Prayuth last week made a rare direct appeal to Thailand’s youth by urging “unity” and promising graduate jobs as he announced a new finance team to tackle the economic damage caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
“Our sights must be on the decades that belong to today’s 15-year-olds, 20-year-olds, and 30-year olds.” said Prayuth. “What’s important today is social justice, equality before the law, equality of opportunity.”
As army chief, Prayuth seized power from the elected government in a 2014 coup and has since smothered dissent and imposed hyper-nationalistic rituals at schools, while steering through a constitution which led to his return to power as a civilian leader in elections last year.
Analysts say the way ahead is impossible to predict.
“There isn’t a precedent for what’s happening right now,” said Matthew Wheeler, senior Southeast Asia analyst for the International Crisis Group.
“But the question is under these circumstances, will the momentum of the demand for reform outpace the capacity of the state to deter it?”
Ahead of Sunday’s rally, student leader Ford said he was not scared of the consequences of making a radical stand.
“We’re on our own now,” he said. “The Thai people are our last hope.”