Thailand: A challenge to dictator and king

Pressure and factionalism among the elites is high, but can the massive protests pushing for change go further than liberal demands which leave out the working classes? Gabriel Ernst rounds up the situation.

On an unusually cold and rainy day in Bangkok thousands clogged the usually empty field opposite the royal palace. From a hastily erected stage speakers riled up the crowd, the large majority of them students, on a litany of issues from freedom of speech to the monarchy and LGBTQ+ concerns. The overarching theme however was democracy, chants of ”Dictator Out” and “We want democracy” repeatedly broke out from the protestors.

Protests on such a scale have seldom been seen in Thailand in recent years since the military coup of 2014. What made this protest even more remarkable was the nature of the discourse on public display, particularly as it relates to the monarchy. After the death of the beloved King Bhumiphol in 2016 his son Vajiralongkorn, known colloquially as Number 10, assumed the throne and is considered to have tightened his grip on power and become more involved in the politics of the country, which he is supposed to not interfere with as the head of state position is supposedly symbolic. Notably he is blamed for the banning of a popular liberal reformist party, Future Forward Party, which held a significant number of seats in parliament and was widely popular among the youth.

Vajiralongkorn is known worldwide as the ‘playboy prince,’ famous for his womanising and hedonistic antics, causing much embarrassment to many Thais who are forced by law to revere the monarch or face imprisonment. However these protests have pushed public discourse right to the limit, with protesters insulting and disparaging the monarchy in speeches that would have been unimaginable just a few years ago.

Later that evening tents were pitched and many of the demonstrators camped out. The atmosphere was tense as rumors circulated of mass police mobilisation around the fringes of the camp, however by morning there remained an eerie calm and the protests continued. It reached its pinnacle when a brass plaque was installed in the ground, rather optimistically representing the moment Thailand switched to a democracy. This was an oblique reference to a similar plaque installed in 1932 after a military coup put an end to absolute monarchy in the kingdom, transitioning it to a parliamentary democracy with the royals as the head of state, the status quo which remains today. The earlier plaque disappeared in mysterious circumstances a few years ago, while the new plaque was removed by police the next day.

The current protests have been compared by many to the radical movements in the kingdom of the 1970s. In 1973 a popular movement led by students dismantled the US-backed dictatorship of Kittikachorn, paving the way for three years of political instability, in which students were the leading voice of radical change. This was until the massacre of student protesters at Thammasat University in 1976, where over 100 students were killed and many more raped and brutalised.

While many from today’s movement have been keen to embrace the notion that they are the spiritual successors to the movement in the 70s, there is a key difference often overlooked, which is the role of radical trade unions and workers’ groups. The movement in the 70s was at very least heavily influenced by these organisations, which connected the intellectual radical class with the working class labourers. Their involvement also allowed shutdowns, strikes and slowdowns to take place in solidarity with the protests, which is what really put pressure on the government to change leadership. It also injected far more radical concepts into student discourse, questioning capitalism, geo-political alignment and westernised conceptions of democracy. Today, other than a small minority, working class voices are notably absent from discourse and involvement in the protests.

There have of course been efforts on the part of some student leaders to involve them, but for many of those in the working class, the student movement is not addressing the harsh living conditions that many find themselves in. Student discourse is far more centered on abstract conceptions of democracy and freedom of speech, while economic issues are generally overlooked.

This will all come as a relief for Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, a former military general, who took the premiership after a coup in 2014 while serving as head of the military. He has since discarded his army uniform for civilian clothing.

Prayut, above all else, fears unity between these two factions of his opposition. Generally considered a military strong man and admirer of realpolitik, he has to maintain control over a population that widely despises him. Even among his constituency of royalists his popularity appears shaky, as his supporters will ultimately side with the royal family if push comes to shove and he finds himself on the king’s bad side.

Despite the calls for democracy from today’s protest movement, Prime Minister Prayut argues that he was fairly elected in 2019. Indeed elections were held, however they were widely considered a farce by everyone who does not support Prayut. Substantiated accounts of vote buying were widespread on Election Day, while before the election Prayut installed a host of military officers to parliament with the same voting rights as elected MPs, to swing the balance of power in order for him to achieve a majority.

As such it looks highly unlikely that Prayut will concede to the protesters’ demands of new ‘fairer’ elections and from an outside perspective it seems they have little hope. However there is a fairly large appetite from the Thai right wing to violently crack down on the protests, particularly from hardcore royalists in light of the discourse on the monarchy. This makes a fresh coup the oust Prayut a real possibility. Ultimately if there is another coup it will be on the behest of the king, who may feel enough is enough. Some protesters even want a royalist coup. Speaking to one anonymous organiser he told me “While a coup is not ideal it would help to radicalise people against the monarchy and in the long run I think it would benefit the movement.”

With fresh protests organised for this month it is impossible to know where the movement will end up. Indeed there is always the possibility that the protests simply peter out, but for now among those involved there is a large appetite for change. What that change will look like or what shape it will take, for now, remains extremely unclear.


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