On October 6, 1976, left-wing activists and students from Bangkok’s Thammasat University gathered on campus to protest the return of former Thai dictator Thanom Kittikachorn. They clashed with right-wing royalist paramilitaries who assaulted, mistreated, beat and burned the protesters, desecrating their bodies. That massacre – Thailand’s own Tiananmen Square incident – resulted in the deaths of 46 students and injured 167 others, although unofficial reports theorize those numbers could be much higher.
More than four decades later, students at Thammasat University are coming to the same courtyard with vigorous cries for democracy. Political unrest continues to plague Thailand, and the country’s youth have suffered the consequences. Now they are protesting for their future as much as for their past.
In 2014, a coup led by current Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha seized power from Thai elected officials and established a military junta. After years of bureaucratic corruption, social inequity and constitutional changes, Chan-ocha took advantage of the public’s distrust of the government, gaining the support of the Thai king and promising temporary stability.
After the 2019 general election, however, Chan-ocha retained power rather than ending military rule as he had originally promised. The supposedly “democratic” process was widely viewed as rigged as the junta forcibly dissolved a notable opposition party and recent electoral reforms favored Chan-ocha’s party. Most blatantly, the ruling party changed the electoral voting system to include the entire parliament instead of the single chamber, meaning that 250 of Chan-ocha’s new Senate members would each have one vote in the parliamentary system.
Frustrated and deceived by the seizure of power and democratic retreat, young Thai people harbor a fundamental mistrust of traditional institutions. Instead, influenced by the Western ideal of freedom, students across the country have developed a populist agenda and progressive values against the country’s growing tyranny.
The once revered Thai monarchy is now at the heart of these criticisms. In 2016, Thailand’s longest-serving monarch King Bhumibol Adulyadej passed away after 70 years of uniting Thai culture and tradition. After his death, Thailand entered a new era of uncertainty, crowning the only son of the former monarch, King Maha Vajiralongkorn.
King Vajiralongkorn is a controversial figure in stark contrast to his revered father. As he has lived much of his life abroad in Germany and Switzerland, many in Thailand consider him to be a foreigner. After being quarantined in the Bavarian Alps and spending over $ 31 million on his coronation, the king’s extravagant lifestyle has come under intense scrutiny. The Thai king presides over more than $ 70 billion, making him one of the richest monarchs in the world. In 2018, a law was passed to give King Vajiralongkorn direct control over all royal assets, which he then embezzled.
Critics call the king a pampered ruler, and many consider his spending grossly inappropriate as Thailand’s economy contracts to record levels. The media question his ability to establish the legitimacy and moral authority that his father so intimately commanded. Either way, Thailand is looking behind haloed curtains – a simple shell of patriotism for the land they call home.
An academic movement
Across the country, tens of thousands of Thai university students have come together in solidarity, forming Thailand’s largest socio-political movement in nearly a decade. Disillusioned by the previously deified monarchy and emboldened by global pro-democracy protests such as those in Hong Kong, Thai activists seized their future and refused to let history repeat itself.
From Thammasat University to the Grand Palais, their demands are clear: the resignation of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, the protection of civil liberties in the constitution, and the limitation of monarchical power within the constitutional monarchy.
These reforms are aimed particularly at rectifying the persecution of political opponents. Thai citizens are bound by the anti-sedition article 116 of the Penal Code, commonly known as the lese majesty law, which strictly prohibits any form of criticism of the monarchy. Many of the movement’s leading figures were arrested in 2016 for contempt of lese majesty, including protest leader Jatuphat “Pai” Boonpattararaksa and leader of the Free Youth Movement Tattep “Ford” Ruangprapaikitseree.
Despite the victimization of student leaders and the rise of COVID-19, in just one year, Thai youth have galvanized passionate voices for change and built revolutionary networks against one of the most repressive regimes in the world.
Represent the royalists and revolutionaries
At the beginning of 2021, sporadic demonstrations resurfaced. As protests resume, the fate of democracy in Thailand is at a crossroads.
The protesters, however, faced strong opposition from the old guard royalists, due to their anti-monarchical stance. To progress, it is necessary that the two parties establish a common understanding between the evolutionary visions of two generations. If Thai youth are to succeed in their quest for democratic representation, they must expand the movement beyond college campuses.
To bridge the gap, the question of representation should not be that of traditionalists versus progressives or fundamentalists versus revisionists. Moreover, this is certainly not a generation-on-generation attack. Thailand’s political conflict, at its core, is a battle of the country’s past against its future.
Each Thai revolution creates a power vacuum filled with temporary solutions and false promises, many of which are sponsored by the king himself. These corrupt regressions have long prospered by pitting oppressed groups against each other. To make this movement a democratic revolution, the first step is to dissociate religion from the state.
For an older generation, the king serves fundamental not only as the head of state and the armed forces, but also as a defender of the Buddhist religion. He is the soul of the country, and the royalists defend the importance of this monarchical tradition. On the other hand, revolutionaries believe that the Thai government served the agenda of the ruling elites while the king continued to divide his people by supporting these military governments.
Through cycles of oppression, the Thai monarchy has exploited political instability to rely on faith. While the king’s role of representing tradition and ancestry is important, it is more crucial to consider how the monarchy reflects the Thai people.
Every Thai citizen faces insecurity due to lack of government transparency and social instability. With little to no representation, the Thai people have suffered greatly from mismanagement of access to vaccines, deepening wealth inequalities and increasing racial prejudice. On the contrary, the royalists must find it disturbing to be represented by a government which has violently oppressed and persecuted their children and grandchildren.
By broadening conversations and framing education, both royalists and anti-royalists can separate the king’s theological influence from socio-political challenges.
Amid the protests at the end of 2020, King Vajiralongkorn proclaimed Thailand a “land of compromise.” The Thai demonstrators must hold him responsible for this nice complaint but without follow-up. By encouraging conversation and rallying patriotism to reforms, the movement can become more morally accessible. Democracy can prevail under a government that is nationally representative and globally accountable.
Between corruption, censorship, coups d’état and compromises, the young people of Thailand have a lot to do. By building a common consensus to end the cycle of tyranny, dreams of democracy in Thailand will finally endure.
Image Credit: Picture through Clint oka is licensed under Unsplash License