On October 15th, the government of Thailand declared a state of emergency after thousands of students gathered in protest. When the movement began in March, protestors demanded democratic changes to the constitution and election system, and called for the resignation of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha. Since the protests reemerged in July, the students have added changes to the monarchy in their list of reforms – a slippery-slope to walk in a country where the punishment for criticizing the king is fifteen years in prison.
The Historical Context
Thailand, which translates to “land of the free,” is the only Southeast Asian country to have never been colonized by the Europeans. The fourth major dynasty in the country, Chakri Dynasty, came to rule in 1782 and is still in power today. The country was an absolute monarchy until the 1932 revolution, which transitioned Thailand to a constitutional monarchy, though it’s important to note that the monarch still holds considerable power.
Since then, Thailand has been plagued with a series of military coup d’etats – a seizure of power usually in a violent manner. The most recent one in 2014 brought the total number of coups to thirteen.
Along with the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Haiti, and Ecuador, Thailand is one of the few countries to have twenty or more constitutions, showing the instability of the country’s political system. The newest one was introduced in 2017.
In 2016, King Vajiralongkorn inherited the throne after his father, the widely admired King Bhumibol Adulyadej, passed away. Since then the new King has been increasing his wealth and power. After transferring all the holdings of the Crown Property Bureau into his personal ownership, Vajiralongkorn net worth is now more than USD $43 billion. These assets value higher than the combined wealth of the British royal family, the sultan of Brunei, the and Saudi king. This wealth is now one of the issues being raised in the recent protests.
Since ascending to the throne, Vajiralongkorn has taken control of key military units, taken away the ability of the Privy Council’s advisory body to act as a regent, and even directly intervened in the 2019 democratic elections. But his controversial actions cannot be criticized due to Thailand’s lese majeste law which forbids speaking out against the monarchy. The increasing power of the monarchy combined with the condemnation of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha’s undemocratic seizure of power in 2014 and 2019, set the stage for the students’ unrest.
Student protests began in March of this year when the constitutional court ruled to dissolve the Future Forward Party, a prominent opposition party popular amongst young people and new voters. Protests halted for a few months due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but resumed in July and have escalated in recent weeks.
On October 15th, the government announced an emergency decree banning gatherings of more than five people. The decree proved futile when tens of thousands of protestors took to the streets that same day, which happened to be the 47th anniversary of the 1973 demoratic protests condemning the reimplementation of military rule.
This time around, the protests are centered around a desire to modernize the monarchy and limit its powers. Students are taking a big risk by violating the lese majeste laws and even calling for the end of the law itself. The protestors have gone so far as to use the hashtag #whydoweneedaking?, which has been posted more than a million times.
The movement has also taken on the slogan “let it end with our generation,” referring to the numerous coups since the establishment of a democracy. A three-finger salute of defiance has also been adopted, inspired by the Hunger Games series. While the protestors have made it clear that they are not looking to abolish the monarchy, their calls for change are unprecedented in Thailand’s history.
In addition, students are outraged by the 2019 election, which they claim Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha unfairly rigged to keep himself in power. Protestors want to see his resignation as well as the implementation of democratic reforms that will restrain the military’s government influence.
How is the government reacting?
So far, the Thai police have arrested more than twenty people, including a prominent human rights lawyer, Anon Nampa. Two activists have also been arrested on the charge of participating in violence against the queen after protests obstructed her motorcade. They may face a lifetime in prison if convicted.
On October 16th, riot police were sent to confront the protestors, firing water cannons at the masses. Prime Minister Prayat has commented on the protests, saying that he urges the students “to be extra careful.” He has also mentioned that it is the government’s job to protect the monarchy.
The movement is gaining traction as protests have popped up in more than nineteen provinces across the country. Thai celebrities have also been using social media to show their support. Hopefully Prime Minister Prayat’s claims to be “avoiding the use of force” are truthful, as protests have remained relatively peaceful up to now.