ASEAN Beat | Politics | Southeast Asia

Unprecedented Open Criticism of King Aired at Thai Protest 

Student protesters aired grievances normally expressed in whispers in remarkably direct language.

By Jerry Harmer and Tassanee Vejpongsa for
Unprecedented Open Criticism of King Aired at Thai Protest 

Pro-democracy students raise a three-finger salute, a resistance symbol borrowed by Thailand’s anti-coup movement from the Hollywood movie “The Hunger Games,” during a protest at Thammasat University in Pathum Thani, north of Bangkok, Thailand, Monday, August 10, 2020.

Credit: AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit

Student leaders in Thailand delivered an unprecedented challenge to the country’s constitutional monarchy on Monday, strongly criticizing the king and demanding changes to lessen what they believe is its anti-democratic nature.

The monarchy is the country’s most revered institution and regarded as beyond censure. It is protected by stringent defamation laws with prison terms up to 15 years. But questioning of its privileged position has grown since the 2016 accession to the throne of King Maha Vajiralongkorn, whose much-admired father King Bhumibol Adulyadej ruled for seven decades.

At least 3,000 students had gathered Monday evening at the Thammasat University campus on the outskirts of Bangkok for the latest and biggest in a series of rallies calling for the government to step down.

But the protest’s direction turned when a student went on stage, read out the 1932 proclamation that ended the absolute monarchy in what was then called Siam, and declared that in fact it lives on despite the country’s nominal status as a democracy.

A number of speakers then took the stage and detailed perceived problems with Thailand’s monarchy.

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Airing their grievances in direct language normally expressed in whispers, the speakers criticized the king’s wealth, his influence, and the fact that he spends almost all his time in Germany, not Thailand.

Such open defiance of the taboos around speaking ill of the monarchy will infuriate ultra-conservatives and the military, who are unlikely to let it go without a response. Security forces in recent weeks already had been trying to intimidate students and other activists from holding demonstrations.

An announcement that a new protest would be held on Wednesday — the Queen Mother’s birthday — seemed likely to provoke royalists even more. 

“We shouldn’t have to speak using symbols. Direct discussion is best. That’s what I think, so I choose to speak directly, out of respect to my own dignity, to that of the listeners and of the monarchy as an institution,” said civil rights lawyer and activist Arnon Nampha, who is currently on bail after being charged last Friday for sedition following an earlier anti-government rally.

Many in the crowd cheered, clapped, and flashed three-fingered salute that has been adopted by Thailand’s pro-democracy movement. Yet others in the audience appeared stunned by the content of the speeches.

Arnon had just a week earlier openly but narrowly questioned the extent of the king’s powers at a much smaller protest. 

The rally ended with another leader, Panusaya Sithijirawattanakul, reading out a manifesto with a list of 10 demands for reforming the institution of the monarchy.

Among them were separation of the king’s personal wealth from the royal palace’s vast fortune held by the Crown Property Bureau; forbidding the monarchy from playing any role in politics or endorsing any military coups; abolishing the excessive glorification of the monarchy; and investigating the deaths of critics of the monarchy.

How much support the students may get from the public at large, tired of sharp and sometimes violent political contention over the last decade and a half, is unclear.

“In the space of one week, the boundaries of public discussion of the monarch and the institution of the monarchy in Thailand have expanded rapidly,” Tyrell Haberkorn, a Thai studies scholar at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said in an email. “Whether or not the authorities will allow this expansion as they should – or will respond with repression or violence – is the question.”

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She said it was significant that university and high school students were at the forefront of the protests, rather than the partisan political veterans who had been spearheading the struggle for democracy since a 2006 military coup.

“Rather than taking the deferral of democracy and an institution that cannot be questioned as normal, they are taking on both directly,” she said. “The banner on the stage at Thammasat University – ‘We don’t want reform, but we want revolution’ – speaks to the kind of change they envision and demand.”

By Jerry Harmer and Tassanee Vejpongsa for the Associated Press in Pathum Thani, Thailand.

Associated Press writer Grant Peck in Bangkok contributed to this report.