Thailand Protests - Monarchy in the Cross Hairs
Protests show no signs of abating
In the past few months Thailand has witnessed a challenge to established traditions with its streets resounding to the slogans and demands of thousands of protestors. For the first time the Monarchy, usually treated with a reverence reserved for divine forces, has also not been spared. There have been sporadic pro Monarchy rallies but nothing compared to the numbers demanding change.
In July 2020 the Future Forward Party, unknown until the 2014 elections, when it managed to secure 81 seats in the 500 member House of Representatives, had under its leader billionaire Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, emerged as the most prominent opponent of the government. The dissolution of the party by the courts in July 2020 saw the beginnings of mass protests in campuses in Thailand that transformed into a movement which witnessed young demonstrators standing up to the police and security forces despite being subjected to violence and arrests.
While the court rejected the charge that the party was seeking to overthrow the monarch, the dissolution meant that its leaders would not be able to participate in politics for 10 years. The court also demanded that the party alter its constitution and replace the phrase that the party abided by “democratic principle per the Constitution”, with the phrase “democratic system with the king as head of state”.
The court found that the Future Forward Party had violated a law governing political parties by accepting a loan from its young tycoon leader, Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, to fund an electoral campaign. The party said that the the 191 million baht loan, equivalent to about $6 million, was legitimate, and that the campaign financing rules were so ambiguous that it would have been impossible to know whether the loan contravened them. Other political parties had taken out loans without any legal ramifications.
In the past too, opposition political parties had been dissolved and dozens of politicians — and their proxies —subjected to long bans from politics usually at the behest of the dominant army backed parties that have held power including the current governing Palang Pracharat Party. There has been comment that the Courts have been playing the military’s game and that the army has used the Monarchy to consolidate its own power even under an ostensibly civilian dispensation. Some Party leaders have been accused of sedition, which could lead to years in jail.
For the demonstrators Bangkok’s Democracy Monument had become a rallying point with slogans calling on the Prime Minister Prayuth Chanocha, the former junta leader who, after taking power in a 2014 coup, had won reportedly rigged elections last year. The demonstrators mostly students also demanded that Parliament be dissolved, and the constitution amended. The protestors claimed that the 2017 army-drafted Constitution reserved the entire Senate for appointees, minimizing the power of elected members of the House of Representatives. And that it was this constitution and a junta-appointed Senate that had allowed Prayuth to stay on as prime minister after the 2019 disputed election.
Thailand has had its fair share of coups with the 2014 coup being the 12th in the series. Before the coup in 2014, Bangkok experienced years of political unrest pitting the monarchists or “yellow shirts” against the “red shirts” largely from the rural areas who supported ousted former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. But commentators have said that this time the protests have been overwhelmingly led by young people who no longer define themselves as “yellow” or “red” but demand greater democratic freedoms and equality.
Pichit Likitkijsomboon, a political analyst and a former economist at Thammasat University has commented that during the military rule over the past six years, the monarchy had been used by the military junta to legitimize human rights violations, like the suppression of freedoms and a crackdown on opponents of the military who were students, young activists and intellectuals.
Unlike in past protests this time the royal family has also not been spared. Thailand’s former King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who passed away in 2016, was widely revered. His son and successor King Vajiralongkorn does not enjoy the same respect. Hundreds of Thai protesters had shouted at the royal motorcade of King Maha Vajiralongkorn in a show of unprecedented open dissent towards the monarchy. The protestors slogans had replaced the traditional ethos of “Nation, Religion, Monarchy with “Nation, Religion, People.”
In a recent incident involving the Queen Suthida’s motorcade which came up against some protestors the slogans included “Our taxes” a reference to the what has been seen as the excessive profligacy of the royal family. They had also adopted the three- finger salute from the Hunger Games movies as a symbol of protest and it was significant that members of the police sent to control the protestors had been seen using the salute while social media reported that police officials had helped the demonstrators.
Interestingly protestors also rallied outside the German Embassy in Bangkok since the King is known to spend months there and had been away for almost a year, despite the turmoil at home, returning only in October on his father’s death anniversary. The protestors accused Germany of allowing the King to play politics while stationed there. His other action of taking direct control of the Monarchy’s wealth rather than letting state institutions handle it had also not gone down well with the people.
In a departure from the past when any public talk of reforming the Monarchy’s status was unhear of , this time in August the protestors had called for the abolition of a draconian defamation law that shields the King from criticism, a greater transparency of royal finances, and for the monarch to stay out of politics.
Thailand has been a constitutional monarchy since the revolution of 1932. The law against royal insults has been present in Thai criminal codes since the early 1900s when Thailand was known as Siam. The monarchy is protected by Section 112 of the country’s Penal Code, which says whoever defames, insults or threatens the king, the queen, the heir-apparent or the regent shall be punished with imprisonment of three to 15 years. There have been instances of ridiculous proportions with a person prosecuted for defaming the late King’s dog.
Immediately after the incident with Queen Suditha, the Prime Minister declared a state of emergency, banning large gatherings and media reports inimical to national security--only to withdraw it a few days later since it was completely ignored by the protestors. The PM had told the protestors that a committee had been created in parliament to discuss possible amendments to the constitution and establish a way to ascertain the opinions of Thailand's younger generation.
After lifting the emergency, which had only inflamed anger and brought tens of thousands of people onto Bangkok streets, the PM called a session of Parliament which was closely watched to see if any of the protestors demands for an amendment of the constitution would be discussed. The opposition Move Forward party said it planned a parliamentary motion “to study the mistakes made over the motorcade”, complaining this had led to severe action being taken, specifically citing the use of Article 110 charges of violence or attempted violence against the queen. Instead the parliament voted to delay until November 2020 a decision on whether it would amend the constitution as more than 1,000 protesters demanded reforms outside the building.
Punishing the messenger is always the first option that embattled leaders choose. In Thailand police said 74 people had been arrested since October 13. Nineteen were granted bail on according to the Thai Lawyers for Human Rights. Apart from arrests by the police, the Ministry of Digital Economy and Society said it had flagged more than 325,000 messages on social media platforms that violated the Computer Crimes Act—echoing the use of similar measures to muzzle dissent used even in democracies where the leadership is faced with increasing criticism and public disenchantment. Police in Thailand had warned local media outlets their coverage of the protests would be scrutinised for possible illegal content.
Among the international players China would be particularly interested in the Thai army , and by extension the Monarchy, dominating the polity. There have been multiple waves of immigration from southern China resulting in a sizable presence and influence of ethnic Chinese at the upper echelons of Thai politics and business. Aside from being Thailand’s second largest export market, the Thai army has signed deals with China worth US $1 billion for main battle tanks and submarines. There are plans afoot to open a joint commercial arms factory in Khon Kaen that would be responsible for assembly, production and maintenance of land weapon systems for the Thai army. Given the current status of the Sino-US rivalry in the region, Thailand would need to fashion its post pandemic foreign policy in a manner that an ideal balance is maintained. There is also likely to be greater focus on strengthening relations with Europe which has been a major source of tourists although China contributes nearly 40% of arrivals into Thailand. A programme has been devised to attract European retirees to the country.
The Thai economy has been affected by the Corona Pandemic as tourism contributes nearly 10 to 20 percent of GDP. A complete closure of borders is not an option for the country as such closedowns have not prevented the virus from afflicting damage in countries that went the lockdown and border closure way. Moreover with 4 million Thais unemployed and nearly 14 million more likely to lose their jobs, closing tourism channels would entail an enormous cost to the economy. The last two months have witnessed a decline in domestic demand and in manufacturing activity. But some analysts have voiced optimism that there could be a revival in 2021 with continued government spending, a recovery in private consumption and firming up fixed investment leading to an increase in domestic demand, and possibly improving external dynamics helping support exports. This is a rather optimistic projection largely based on the assumption that the virus would be controlled by 2021.
There is little likelihood of the protests ending and even less likelihood of the military dominated system and the monarchy willingly acceding to the demands of the younger generation. The scenario seems to suggest a period of confrontation with increasing violence; a possible showdown between the people and the army with the police possibly throwing its weight in favour of the protestors and then, perhaps, as has happened elsewhere where prolonged confrontations have occured, the royal family shifting base to more salubrious climes.