Abstract: The Thai monarchy, in partnership with the powerful military, has faced an unprecedented challenge from protesters aiming to rein in its unchecked informal authority through specific reforms in adherence with the country’s Constitution. For decades, the two institutions had forged a solid partnership, which has stridently dominated the Thai political landscape, leaving a little room for contest from the opposition. But the monarchy under King Maha Vajiralongkorn faces a new crisis of legitimacy, as shown by the manifest evidence of the ten-point demands articulated by the protesters, as well as my independent investigation into the feasibility of open dialogue on the status of the monarchy.
The twin forces in Thai politics—the monarchy and the military—have been critically challenged by a series of student protests that started in the middle of July 2020. For decades, the two institutions had forged a solid partnership, which has stridently dominated the Thai political landscape, leaving a little room for contest from the opposition. The military has synonymized the monarchy with the nation. Therefore, defending the monarchy is equivalent to defending the nation, an undeniable obligation of the military, which in turn has guaranteed its role in politics. They employed a variety of instruments for the consolidation of power, from state propaganda and glorification programs that excessively extolled the monarchy, the weaving of intricate connections with other nodes of power to create the “network monarchy,” to the direct military interventions to quell defiant governments in the form of the coup.1 The monarchy was made the utmost important institution, sitting atop a political apex, and fiercely protected by the lèse-majesté law, which forbids insults against certain members of the royal family. Violators could be imprisoned for up to 15 years.2 King Bhumibol Adulyadej (1946–2016) was reinvented into a divine monarch, who worked indefatigably for the well-being of his subjects. He was celebrated as the force of stability, a solution to several violent crises that traumatized Thailand.3 The image of the perfect king was vigorously popularized in the state media, further strengthening his moral authority, unmatched by even the nation’s most successful politicians.
Under this royal domination, aided by the loyal army, Thai democracy has slipped into a comatose state. George Orwell wrote his dystopian novel 1984 to describe a society suffered by the consequences of totalitarianism, mass surveillance and repressive regimentation of all members. It examines the role of truth and facts within politics and how they were manipulated. “Everything faded into mist. The past was erased, the erasure was forgotten, the lie became truth,” wrote Orwell.4 Thailand in 2020 is Orwell’s 1984, in which state propaganda about the monarchy has eclipsed the truth about the institution. In the Orwellian world à la Thailand, facts about the monarchy become false. False information about the monarchy becomes truthful. The autocratic regime becomes democratic, and the monarchy becomes constitutional. Thais were told that their country had progressed impressively, under the diligence of the government. The legitimacy of the Thai power holders rests primarily on the falsification of the political realities. Orwell’s 1984 provides a groundwork for the understanding of what really sits beneath the so-called facts propagated by the state.
The introduction of 1984 lends a framework on how to interpret the current protests led by students in Thailand. In brief, the students are striving to constitutionalize the monarchy. Thailand abolished its absolute monarchy in 1932 and formally embraced a constitutional monarchy, drawing on the model of the United Kingdom. But in the 88 years since, the Thai monarchy has not adhered to this framework.5 King Bhumibol operated outside the constitution, yet his operation was explained away as constitutional. He worked intimately with the military to craft a kind of politics whereby civilian governments were kept weak and vulnerable. If they proved to be a threat to the monarchy, they would be overthrown in a military coup. Simultaneously, Bhumibol promoted a neo-royalism ideology, reinventing the monarchy to be sacred, popular and democratic.6 This ideology was a part of state propaganda designed to elevate Bhumibol to demigod status. However, by his construction he was not just a demigod: he was also the people’s king who worked indefatigably to uplift the well- being of the poor. As a result, his popularity was unchallenged. He also intervened in political crises and often effectively stopped the escalation of violence—a role that earned him the title of the “stabilizing force.” This role was unconstitutional, yet many Thais accepted this aspect of the monarchy.
His son, King Maha Vajiralongkorn, further obscured the line of royal prerogatives, highlighting the monarchy’s continued interventions in politics. For example, Vajiralongkorn became permitted to have his own military unit. He appointed the army chief. He requested the amendment of the constitution in provisions related to royal power. He transferred all assets under the Crown Property Bureau, estimated at $30–60 billion, to his sole possession.7 Kevin Hewison states, “Under him, the crown now holds more formal power than at any time since 1932.”8 Vajiralongkorn’s overwhelming power is accompanied by his own notorieties as an eccentric and self-indulgent king. This reputation is well known among Thais and foreigners alike. However, the Thai state fails to comprehend that the younger generation today is very different from that of its predecessor. While they were growing up, the authoritative reign of Bhumibol was waning, throwing into uncer- tainty the future of the centuries-old monarchy. The new king is not loved. The propaganda and glorification programs hence became ineffective, failing to capture the youths’ hearts and minds. Living through the twilight years of the Bhumibol era and influenced by the emergence of the social media, Thai youths were eager to reject the state propaganda about their unsurpassed monarchy. If Vajiralongkorn understood what was quintessential for a legitimate king, the situation could have been different. He may hold more formal power than his father, but he lacks the legitimacy necessary to justify it. Thai youths have awakened to a new reality and begun to seriously question royal power. It is true that Thailand has managed the impact of COVID-19 better than the rest of Asia. But COVID-19 produced other dev- astating effects on young people—economic hardship. While they fought to make ends meet, they read international headlines about their king living lavishly in Germany with a harem of 20 women, only treating Thailand as a short holiday destination.9 These factors served as driving forces behind the student protests with a pivotal objective: an immediate monarchical reform.
The Ten Commandments
Initially, the students demanded the dissolution of parliament for a fresh election, the amendment of constitution to make it more democratic, and the investigation into the abductions and killings of Thai dissidents over- seas. The last demand emerged in the wake of the abduction of a young Thai dissident, Wanchalearm Satsaksit, in Cambodia. Wanchalearm was abducted in broad daylight on 4 June from his apartment in Phnom Penh.10 Wanchalearm was not the first victim of the ruthless regime. At least eight dissidents residing in Laos were either forcibly disappeared or killed; most were identified as anti-monarchists. These demands were in general well received by the public. As a result, the students decided to elevate their campaign to call for immediate monarchical reform. They crafted a ten-point set of demands targeting the constitutionalization of the monarchy.11 Among these points are:12
- Creating a division between the personal property of the king and the Crown Property Bureau.
- Ending the palace intervention in politics.13
- Nullifying the order that permitted the transfer of military units14 to the direct command of the royal palace.
- Ending state propaganda related to the monarchy.
- Investigating the abductions and deaths in exile of anti-monarchy activists.
The students’ ten points sent a shockwave through the old establishment. Addressing issues related to the monarchy in public is nothing truly new. A decade ago, some anti-monarchists fiercely criticized the monarchy on the protest stage. This included Daranee Charnchoengsilpakul, also known as Da Torpedo, who was sentenced to 15-year imprisonment for defaming the royal family under the lèse-majesté law. Groups of academics and politicians, in the past, have recommended the reform of the law, but successive governments trashed these efforts. The difference between past and present protests vis-à-vis the monarchy is that the students’ demand today is articu- late, formal, and all-encompassing: designed to tackle the structural problem that has long putrefied the royal institution. It is a ready-made demand that needs to be taken for further debate in Parliament. Here, the role of the traditional political party system is crucial. The students depend on their allies in politics, particularly the opposition Pheu Thai and Move Forward parties, to officially propose this agenda during parliamentary session. This is the most practical way to materialize the monarchical reform. But as evident, these parties, fearing the political repercussions, refused to undertake the task, leaving the street protests as the only option to enforce the reform. Overall, the Thai traditional political party system is corrupt; it has preferred to maintain the political status quo. During the recent parliamentary vote for the constitutional amendment, for example, the majority of parliamentarians rejected the proposal. Efforts made through the parliamentary channel remain futile. Meanwhile, characteristic personalities from the opposition, including the former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and former leader of the disbanded Future Forward Party, Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, are not reliable partners of the students. Thaksin has never wanted to be perceived as anti-monarchist, possibly to keep the door open for his future return to Thailand. Thanathorn might have been more willing to support the demands but his restricted political role has limited his role in the student movement. Certain civil society organizations lent their support to the students. But their support is surreptitious due to the sensitive issue of the monarchy, which they fear to be disruptive to their works.
The leaders of the protest argued that their ten-point demand was legitimate, in the context of the constitutional monarchy. Requesting the monarchy to behave constitutionally is not illegal, they claimed.15 The government may be able to block the demand in Parliament. But because of the legitimacy of the demand, it has failed to shoot down street protests. Hence, it has turned to other tactics to clamp down on the protesters. The palace has remained silent regarding the students’ demand, a façade for a deep feeling of being threatened. The continuing arrests of student leaders under- line the fact that the monarchy is under threat. The augmented power of the monarchy may not well be as solidified as the king would have believed. The ten-point demand is revolutionary simply because of the revered and inviolable position of the monarchy. But the courage of the students alone, in the face of the lèse-majesté law, cannot fully justify the revolutionary demand. The emergence of social media assists greatly in propelling the demand to become the public agenda. This role of social media explains the distinctiveness of the current protest, setting it apart from yesteryears’ tactics of demonstration. Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, are serving as significant platforms for discussion about the monarchy, crumbling down the walls that prevented Thais from addressing this controversial issue. Social media also plays its part in eroding the state authority over information. Long depending on traditional media to control public opinion, the government is learning fast to catch up with the challenges of social media. Thai youths have taken advantage of the many avenues of online discussion regarding the monarchy, contesting the traditional fashion of information flow, which has been one-way and top-down. Today, with freely available social media outlets, younger generation is able to find alternative sources of information to the government, making the flow of data two-way and bottom-up. The Thai state can no longer dictate information, as the Ministry of Truth in Orwell’s 1984 was assigned to do. The supposed truth about the monarchy as informed by the state is questioned. This questioning has motivated the students to stand firm on their call for urgent monarchical reform.
The Royalists Marketplace
In the middle of COVID-19 pandemic, I set up a private Facebook group called the “Royalists Marketplace” as an experiment to assess the viability of the setting of a venue for frank dialogues on the monarchy.i The birth of the group coincided with the frustration among the youth concerning their misbehaving king. Over time, membership grew significantly. Within four months, it had more than 1 million members, seriously menacing the archaic ICT bureaucracy of the Thai state. The Royalists Marketplace is popular because it brings together like-minded youth who are curious about the monarchy. It offers a new environment in which sharing critical opinions on the monarchy is a new normal, supported by peers, and in defiance of long-held taboos. The group openly discussed sensitive topics, including the political intervention of the monarchy, the intimate ties between the monarchy and the military, the superrich Crown Property Bureau, the anachronistic lèse-majesté law, and the brutality against critics of the monarchy. Members also expressed their critical opinions on the personality of King Vajiralongkorn, his sexual dalliances, his eccentric lifestyle and his use of fear to govern the kingdom. They threw off the shroud to open discussion of the institution, thus making gossip unnecessary. Many members of the Royalists Marketplace took to the streets to join the protests, multiplying the strength of supporters for a monarchical reform. The government has therefore faced two fronts of the war: one on the streets and the other on the cyberspace.
What has made the student protests refreshing and, more importantly, accessible for the younger generation is the use of pop culture to underscore their messages—an expression never seen before in previous protests.16 Some of their ideas based on pop culture were cute. Nonetheless, they were serious in confronting the elephant in the room. The use of pop culture is varied. Some of the memes were homegrown, while some were borrowed. For example, Anon Numpa, a protest leader, dressed up as Harry Potter with a mission to combat Lord Voldemort, paralleling with the struggle of the people against the monarchy. In another gathering, protesters pretended they were hamsters organizing an activity to kick out dictators, inspired by Japanese manga Hamtaro, which was serialized in Shogakukan’s magazine Ciao in 1997. Other times, the protesters purposefully crossed the line in an attempt to desacralize the monarchy. Photos of two prominent critics of monarchy, myself and Somsak Jeamteerasakul, were put in a gold frame and raised by protesters, mimicking the worshipping of the king of Thailand. Banners with derogatory wordings about the monarchy were clearly visible, differentiating it from the tactic of the past through which insulting messages against the monarchy were mostly done in the form of graffiti. Sarcastic comments, such as “What is good in Germany?”, were meant to condemn the king for residing in Munich. Another protester wore a white tiny tank top, unravelling his tattoo, to make fun of Vajiralongkorn who adorned the same outfit while strolling on a German street. Furthermore, the protests offered a space for LGBT activists to call for gender equality. They perceived themselves as marginalized people fighting for equal rights, an agenda in tandem with the overall protest in search for equal rights among Thais in general. The masters of ceremony of some of the protests appeared in drag, campaigning for social acceptance of the LGBT community in Thailand. The Democracy Monument in Bangkok was transformed into a mini-catwalk for LGBT mannequins who wrapped themselves in rainbow-colored dresses. This colorful way of protesting may be uniquely Thai, as it, for now, focuses on a hard issue yet portrays it softly.
But the student protests are not confined only within the domain of Thai-ness. International elements also partially shaped the contour of the protest. The now-famous Milk Tea Alliance, incorporating Thailand, Hong Kong and Taiwan, greatly lent its support for the Thai protesters. The term Milk Tea Alliance represents a shared passion for sweet tea drinks in the three locations. Each of these political realms encountered similar political circumstances in which the youths stood up against the traditionalists who happened to be authoritarians. The alliance effectively shifted online debates concerning critical hurdles against democratization toward street activism and political movements, led by the voices of young netizens. Gabriela Bernal argues that this newly strengthened solidarity between the different protest groups in the region shows how seemingly weak and power- less people can have a voice and demand the entire world’s attention.17 Thai youths were inspired by Joshua Wong, a young protest leader of Hong Kong, who, in turn, frequently sent encouraging messages to his Thai counterparts. They shared concerns of the political situation, protest strategies, and best practices on how to organize successful rallies. The Thai state could be worried that the violent demonstrations in Hong Kong could contribute to an escalation of protests in Thailand. Indeed, the Milk Tea Alliance unveils the diffusion model of protests witnessed across the world, from India to Belarus, underscoring the leading role of youths in tackling the political conflict at home. For instance, young protesters in Belarus were so inspired by the Milk Tea Alliance that they used Ryazhenka, a Belarusian yogurt drink, to symbolise their fight against the government of Alexander Lukashenko. This model of protests is innovative. Despite its deep nationalist symbolism, the use of local drink has its transnational impact. While the protests are intrinsically political, they can be very cultural too. And this cultural side of the protests is contagious, from one alliance to another, helping to fortify democratic movements of the world.
The Weakness Of A Strong Monarch
A nominally strong monarch is now trapped in a dilemma. It is unimagi- nable that King Vajiralongkorn would respond to the demand positively and undertake self-reform. It is more likely that the student requests would be brushed aside Indeed, the king has signalled his subtle support for the royalist movement to fight back. He, at his palace, on 23 October, publicly praised a royalist supporter who had faced off with protestors, telling the supporter, “Very brave, very good, thank you.”18 But this would only prompt more students onto the streets and provoke a violent crackdown from the state. Either way, it could lead to the end of the royal prerogatives. The only difference is that the reform to constitutionalize the monarchy is to save it from extinction. The use of force against the students may, on the contrary, terminate the institution altogether, to be replaced by a republic.
The students have proactively continued their campaign for monarchical reform and show no signs of backing down. On 27 October, they gathered in front of the German Embassy in Bangkok to demand the government of Angela Merkel to investigate if Vajiralongkorn exercised his royal power and ordered the forced disappearances of oppositions while residing in Germany, which would tantamount to breaching the German sovereignty. To date, this was the boldest move by the students in challenging the king.19 This position is testing the patience, as well as the resilience, of the government. So far, several legal instruments have been use to obstruct the student movement. The government is preoccupied with arresting several core leaders of the protest. Simultaneously it requested Facebook to block access to the Royalists Marketplace group in Thailand. But the harassments on the part of the government have failed to deter protesters and social media users to tone down their requests. At time of writing, the protests are in their fourth month. COVID-19 has already hit the Thai economy hard; this effect will be worsened by a series of protests. The tug of war between the government and the protesters has already prolonged the crisis. The lack of support from elected representatives will affect the chances of the protests ending peacefully. Instead, a tragic end could be on the cards, but one hopes that a way forward for the protests, if a peaceful exit is still on everyone’s mind, is for all parties concerned to jointly find a new consensus. This, however, requires the participation of Vajiralongkorn, which remains unlikely at this point in time.
Returning to Orwell’s 1984, the young generation today refuses to be blinded by the manufactured facts about the monarchy. They want a better future for themselves. Anon asked the protesters from where he stood on the stage, “Is it too much to demand a constitutional monarchy?” The crowds collectively shouted, “No!” Thailand will from now on never be the same— the genie has been let out of the bottle. We cannot travel back to 1984. The students’ demand for monarchical reform is an irreversible process.
- Duncan McCargo coined the term “network monarchy” to describe the Thai political system which was dominated by the most powerful network of the monarchy. It consists of the military, the judges, the senior bureaucrats and parts of the royalist Bangkok middle class; See, Duncan McCargo, “Network Monarchy and Legitimacy Crises in Thailand,” Pacific Review 18, no. 4 (December 2005): 499-519.
- For an excellent discussion of the lèse-majesté law, see David Streckfuss, Truth on Trial in Thailand: Defamation, Treason, and Lèse-Majesté, (London and New York: Routledge, 2011).
- Pavin Chachavalpongpun, “Neo-royalism and the Future of the Thai Monarchy,” Asian Survey 55, no. 6 (2015): 1193-1216.
- George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty Four: a Novel, (New York: Harper Perennial, 2014), 95.
- Paul M. Handley, The King Never Smiles: A Biography of Thailand’s Bhumibol Adulyadej, (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2006), 10.
- Chachavalpongpun, 2015.
- Joshua Kurlantzick, “Why the Thai King’s Power Grab could Backfire,” World Politics Review, 16 October 2019, https://www.worldpoliticsreview.com/insights/28268/the-thai-king-is-consolidating- power-and-it-could-backfire.
- Kevin Hewison, “Managing Vajiralongkorn’s Long Succession”, in Coup, King, Crisis: A Critical Interregnum in Thailand, ed. Pavin Chachavalpongpun, Monograph 68, Yale Southeast Asia Studies (forthcoming).
- Kate Ng, “Coronavirus: Thai King Self-Isolates in Alpine Hotel with Harem of 20 Women amid Pandemic”, Independent, 29 March 2020, https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/coronavirus- thailand-king-maha-vajiralongkorn-grand-hotel-sonnebichl-germany-a9431936.html.
- George Wright and Issariya Praithongyaem, “Wanchalearm Satsaksit: The Thai Satirist Abducted in Broad Daylight,” BBC, 2 July 2020, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-53212932.
- Hathairat Phaholtap and David Streckfuss, “The Ten Demands that Shook Thailand,” New Mandala, 2 September 2020, https://www.newmandala.org/the-ten-demands-that-shook-thailand/.
- Pavin Chachavalpongpun and Joshua Kurlantzick, “Thailand Protests Increasing Challenge the Monarchy,” Council on Foreign Relations, 18 August 2020, https://www.cfr.org/blog/thailand-protestsin- creasingly-challenge-monarchy.
- Thailand has had the most coups of any country in Southeast Asia—and by some measures of any country in the world. Analysts and commentators debate the number of coups that have taken place since 1932, with some placing the total at a dozen successful. See, for example, Greg Myre, “Why Does Thailand Have So Many Coups?” Parallels, NPR, 22 May 2014, https://www.npr.org/sections/paral- lels/2014/05/22/314862858/why-does-thailand-have-so-many-coups.
- “Thailand’s King Takes Personal Control of Two Key Army Units,” Reuters, 1 October 2019, https:// www.reuters.com/article/us-thailand-king/thailands-king-takes-personal-control-of-two-key-army-units- idUSKBN1WG4ED.
- “Government Official Files Royal Defamation Complaint Over Harry Potter Protest Speech,” Prachatai, 5 August 2020, https://prachatai.com/english/node/8698.
- Noppatjak Attanon, “From Hamtaro to Drag Queen: Pop Cultures as the New Means for Thai Political Movement,” Workpoint Today, 27 July 2020, https://workpointtoday.com/hamtaro-dragqueenand-thai- politics/.
- Grabiela Bernal, “The Milk Tea Alliance: How Thailand, Taiwan, and Hong Kong are Supporting each other’s Fight for Democracy,” FORSEA, 20 August 2020, https://forsea.co/the-milk-tea-alliance- how-thailand-taiwan-and-hong-kong-are-supporting-each-others-fight-for-democracy/.
- “Thai King in Rare Praise for Pro-Monarchists,” BBC, 24 October 2020, https://www.bbc.com/news/ world-asia-54675173.
- Apornrath Phoonphongphiphat and Masayuki Yuda, “Thailand Protesters Query German Embassy on Absent King,” Nikkei Asia, 27 October 2020, https://asia.nikkei.com/Politics/Turbulent-Thailand/ Thailand-protesters-query-German-embassy-on-absent-king.
i The original Royalists Marketplace can be accessed here: https://www.facebook.com/ groups/160302545298190/. After it was blocked as access in Thailand, I set up a new group under a similar name, Royalists Marketplace-Talad Laung (Talad Luang is the Thai translation of the English name). As of the time of writing this article, the new group has 1.5 million members, surpassing those of the first group. It can be accessed here: https://www.facebook.com/groups/634791290746287/.
This Argument appears in Politics of Protest, the Spring/Summer 2020 issue of the Journal of International Affairs. Subscribe or purchase to read the article in print or via JSTOR.
Photo Credit: Supanut Arunoprayote, This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license