Features | Politics | Southeast Asia

Behind Thailand’s Protests, Cracks in the Establishment

Shifts in the establishment’s support base are driving the Thai democracy movement. That sets the current moment apart.

By James Row for
Behind Thailand’s Protests, Cracks in the Establishment

Pro-democracy activist and student leaders greet supporters after a protest rally at Democracy Monument in Bangkok, Thailand, Sunday, Aug. 16, 2020.

Credit: AP Photo/Gemunu Amarasinghe

For more than a month, Thai youth and others have escalated protests against the government of General Prayut Chan-o-cha and the Thai royalist establishment at large. On August 16, the largest political rally in years was held at Bangkok’s Democracy Monument, with well over 10,000 in attendance. The next week, secondary and high school students across the country, including from elite schools in Bangkok and the south, the heart of the establishment’s support base in the past, raised three fingers to show their support and defiance.

Students first took aim at the semi-elected government by demanding the dissolution of parliament, creation of a new constitution, and an end to the intimidation of outspoken opponents of the regime, in place since a military coup in 2014. Later, however, the students entered uncharted territory by urging reforms of the monarchy, unthinkable during the reign of King Bhumipol, who passed away in 2016 following seven decades on the throne.

Many Bangkokians and even foreign analysts have viewed the protests, which will likely escalate significantly in the coming weeks, as representing a “generational divide.” On one side there are the students and a younger generations of Thais opposing the royalist establishment. On the other there are older generations split between establishment backers and those drifting away from supporting not only the conservative military-led government but also, more broadly, the military and the monarchy.

Yet, it may be more fitting to see this divide specifically within the establishment support base, a clear minority in recent decades given the past domination of elections by parties aligned with the arch enemy of the old establishment, Thaksin Shinawatra. Now, many – and a majority at least in Bangkok – of the current protesters hail from families that were staunchly pro-establishment and anti-Thaksin during the Bhumipol era. But rather than back royalist and military authority efforts to marginalize electoral authority like past generations, they are now flat-out rejecting the twin pillars of the Thai state.

During the country’s historic national-level conflict that pitted pro-establishment “Yellow Shirts” versus Thaksin Shinawatra-aligned “Red Shirts,” this was unimaginable. The middle and upper classes by and large fell into the yellow camp and consistently turned to the country’s old establishment elite surrounding Bhumipol to neutralize Thaksin-aligned electoral power. Between 2006 and 2014, military coups and establishment-aligned courts removed several Thaksin-aligned parties and governments from power, including Thaksin and his Thai Rak Thai Party in 2006. The most popular political party for Bangkokians and southerners was the Democrat Party, which was also held in high regard by elite royalists but consistently got pummeled at the polls.

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The monarchy was accorded immense honor and respect by the Thai elite and middle class most especially, and there was deep reverence for Bhumipol. But now many have been upset by not only protracted, incompetent, and strong-fisted military rule, backed by an ultra-conservative constitution that includes a fully appointed senate, but also the direction of the monarchy under new king, Vajiralongkorn, Bhumipol’s 68-year-old son.

A student group from Bangkok’s elite Thammasat University laid out a 10-point manifesto aimed at curbing the monarchy’s authority, mentioning a desire for the king to be truly above politics, reducing the national budget allocated to the king, disbanding royal offices, including the historically powerful privy council, and ending public relations that excessively glorify the monarchy.

Vajiralongkorn spends almost all of his time abroad in Germany and national budgets allocated to the king have escalated in recent years, helping spur the recent criticisms. In addition, coup rumors have surfaced over the past year, leading some to believe that Prayut could be replaced with another general and that the end goal of state leaders is the entrenchment of royalist-military power for decades to come.

In 1932, Thailand transitioned from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy. Yet Red Shirts, leftists, and some others long felt that constitutional monarchy during the Bhumipol era was undermined by the network around Bhumipol, with the public backing of a majority of the upper and middle classes. However, establishment backers adamantly believed in the legitimacy of the constitutional monarchy under Bhumipol, and for many of them, military coups and dictatorships helped to improve the country’s democracy by removing deeply flawed, corrupt elected governments. Few if any Thais seemed to want a return to absolute monarchy even if they held critical views of politicians and electoral authority.

So, when statues commemorating the 1932 revolution began to vanish beginning in 2016, even some liberal royalists and staunch Thaksin opponents of the past began to worry that there was a turn toward absolutism and that the democratic history of the country was trying to be erased by the state.

At schools across the country, similar fears escalated due to required hairstyles and the reintroduction of prostration during the national anthem, banned over 150 years ago by King Chulalongkorn.

In light of such fears, one of the demands of the students has been the abolition of the controversial lese majeste law. Since the early 1900s, the law has been legally used to protect the monarchy from criticism. However, the law’s legitimacy was buttressed by the reverence that the upper and middle classes held toward the institution. In the past, many Red Shirts and other Thais that held critical views of the establishment desired reforms of both the military and monarchy but remained silent on the issue given the massive symbolic power of the monarchy under Bhumipol. Royalist attitudes among the majority of the privileged classes helped to shield the monarchy from criticism as much as, or more than, actual laws. After Bhumipol’s death, the possibility of a change in attitude among the establishment support base toward the law, the monarchy, and the military escalated.

In March 2018, the Future Forward Party was formed and began to capitalize on emerging discontent following four years of military rule. Political observers have noted that the now-dissolved party galvanized support among younger generations of Thais on an anti-military ticket centered on democratization, decentralization, and demilitarization. But perhaps the real significance of the party is that it made headway into the former pro-establishment camp, facilitating an ongoing process whereby former pro-establishment supporters have turned into full-blown supporters of progressive reforms.

At protests late last year and early this year, even former People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) supporters-turned-Future Forward supporters professed that they had a change of heart and now opposed the military government. In late 2013 and early 2014, the PDRC staged protests that helped to pave the way for Prayut’s coup against the elected government of Yingluck Shinawatra. More recently, some youth have started an online campaign to boycott all celebrities who supported the PDRC and still back the establishment.

The rapid changes in the dispositions among the old establishment support base have contributed to a robust democratic climate in society but also, to some degree, to the subsiding of the Red-Yellow divide. Some protesters have even expressed apologies to the Red Shirts for misunderstanding their past grievances toward the old establishment.

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The Red Shirts have been marginalized since the 2014 coup but some have blended in with recent protests. Some political onlookers suspect that the relative dormancy of the country’s most active group pushing against the establishment over the past 15 years may in part be a political tactic to allow for the anti-establishment movement to swell and include Thais that come from the traditional establishment base. Older conservatives potentially on the fence are much less likely to oppose the urban students, including some who come from elite families, compared with the largely rural-based Red Shirts that were associated with Thaksin.

While there are still pro-establishment royalists seeking to protect the status quo and stand firm in rejecting the students and all other government opponents, they are an even smaller minority now compared with just a few years ago. Plus, they seem to be losing traction almost by the day as the economy sinks and the Prayut-led government reacts to the protests by intimidating and detaining student leaders.

During the coup-appointed government of Prayut from 2014 until last year, some elements of the old establishment prominent in the Bhumipol era were rumored to have wanted to replace Prayut with a polished civilian statesman but still prevent progressive, democratic reforms. Moreover, it was known in the years prior to the succession from Bhumipol to Vajiralongkorn that some old guard royalists had hoped that the prince’s younger sister, Princess Sirindhorn, would get the nod over him and be named regent. Both scenarios would have been largely supported or, at least, accepted by a majority of the middle and upper classes at the time.

Now, however, the youth have spurred a movement that stands firm on democratic principles and rejects Thailand’s traditional governance models all together, including the possibility of a national unity government being formed by the coalition government of Prayut should the former army chief step down or be removed, which is very possible in the coming months.

For some proponents of electoral authority, the Thai middle and upper classes were seen as obstacles to democratization because of their staunch royalism and support for military intervention in the past. While the state currently appears staunchly conservative, even anachronistic, Thai society has never looked more ready to move away from its traditional national model centered on the military-monarchy alliance and push the country on a more democratic path.

James Row is a longtime observer of Thai politics.