ASEAN Beat | Politics | Southeast Asia

As Thailand’s Protests Gather Momentum, What is the Endgame?

For those wanting a democratic Thailand, is it more important to keep the military in its barracks or the king in his palaces?

David Hutt
As Thailand’s Protests Gather Momentum, What is the Endgame?

Thai soldiers on the streets during the military coup of May 2014.

Credit: Flickr/punloph

If you chance across rolling news in the Western world, some way down the schedule you might catch a minute or two about the protests currently taking place in Thailand. You will likely be told that they are youth-led, and that they seek to restrict the monarchy’s powers and rewrite the constitution.

But Shawn Crispin’s latest report in the Asia Times argues that things aren’t as straightforward as might be expected. No doubt the majority of the young protestors are still loyal to their grassroots, soixante-huitard struggle against all forms of repression and parochialism, from the absolutist tendencies of King Maha Vajiralongkorn and the military’s stranglehold over politics to the corporal punishment of Thai schoolchildren and the persecution of the LGBT community.

Yet, as Crispin writes, “there are significant political forces hidden in the wings that are likely keen to steer the shift and fill the vacuum if Vajiralongkorn’s now considerable and often-exercised royal powers and prerogatives are reined in.” Least innocuous is the latest tycoon-cum-democrat Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, founder of the now-banned Future Forward Party. Thanathorn’s party came in third in the 2019 elections, and he rightly feels aggrieved that his party was dissolved by this military-cum-civilian government last year on very specious pretexts. However, he has been keen to distance himself from the protests.

There is somewhat less distance between the “Red Shirt” pressure groups aligned with self-exiled former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, which took part in the major protests on September 19, the 14th anniversary of Thaksin’s overthrow. Most interesting (and most opaque) is the role played by other royals and royalists, including those loyal to the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej who have now found themselves either opposed to, or sidelined by, Vajiralongkorn. Panusaya Sithijirawattanakul, who has risen to become the figurehead of the protest movement and who led a midnight demonstration on September 19, told Crispin that her group had royalist backing, although she mentioned no names. “Extraordinary messaging requires extraordinary backing in Thailand’s context,” Crispin cited one diplomat as saying about the whole affair. The apparent implication is that Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha currently knows neither who he is actually dealing with, nor how far up Thai society those backing the protestors go.

Whether or not the youth-led movement can maintain its autonomy from these other actors matters greatly, since the apparent spirit of the protestors is to put an end to the seemingly endless cycle of coups and constitutions that has taken place since 1932, when a revolution brought down the absolute monarchy. The average 18-year-old Thai will now have seen two democratic governments be overthrown by two military coups, each of which led to new constitutions.

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The 10 demands for royal reform proclaimed by protest leaders are indeed radical and they would significantly weaken the political powers of the monarchy, the alleged vulnerability of which has figured as the excuse for successive military coups. So, too, would their demands go some way to weaken the military’s grip on power, now formalized by a new constitution and normalized by last year’s rigged election.

Yet what strikes the eye about the protests is the sense that there would be some level of accomplishment if there were to be a mere return to the status quo ante. It is highly improbable that the government or the king would accept the most radical of the demands, but limited reform is possible. Yet this would basically return the monarchy to how it was under the reign of King Bhumibol. Indeed, there’s a sense that protesters aren’t so much opposed to the monarchy as to this monarch. The protests uneasily have one foot planted in the past and the other dangling somewhere in the future. It is oddly revanchist and progressive at the same time, which is perhaps explained by the presence of several actors behind the scenes who have something to reclaim, while the majority of the protesters really do want to create something new. More importantly, it is perhaps explained by the fact that the most radical issue is really not being talked about.

So far, the central radical objective of the protests is royal reform. Quite right, and long overdue. But is the cycle of coups and constitutions more likely to be ended by keeping the king in his palaces or by keeping the military in its barracks?

On the surface, democratic governments over the decades have been overthrown by military coups, not by royal intervention. One can debate whether the military is merely acting out the monarchy’s political aspirations or whether protecting the monarchy is held up as a mere excuse for the military’s political goals. In this symbiotic relationship, if one side weakens does that mean the other also loses power? Limiting the monarch’s political powers doesn’t necessarily limit the military’s political powers. Yet, limiting the military’s power would more than likely limit the monarch’s.

Again, the issue is more complex that just that. Vajiralongkorn’s court is surrounded by powerful mandarins and tycoons, so the problem is much bigger than Vajiralongkorn himself – and royal reform is as much about curtailing the dominance of a political and business elite as it is about the question of royal prerogative.

Of course, I understand that limiting the military’s powers isn’t a new concept, and it was the primary goal of Thai democrats over at least the past two decades, if not longer. Maybe the protesters are actually being clever: Weaken the royalists first and then the military’s political power will wither away, by denying it the excuse of having to come to the protection of the throne. They may also intend to sow divisions between the military and the royalists. As Crispin writes,

Prayut’s core elite royalist constituency is baying for him to do more to protect the crown’s prestige from the rising anti-royal rhetoric which, if allowed to swell, could threaten a wide range of political and big business family interests that have invested heavily, if not slavishly, in loyalty to Vajiralongkorn’s crown.

If Prayut doesn’t take action, the military could lose the respect of these royalists. And even under massive public pressure, if his military-dominated government does end up allowing for the radical restriction of the monarchy’s powers, then the military’s apparent role as the protector of royal honor, its excuse during recent coups, will wither away – and with it the military’s self-proclaimed reason for interfering in civilian politics.

As Pravit Rojanaphruk of Khaosod English asked recently: “Can there be a compromise, an accommodation of one another – or will it have to be another zero-sum game with no middle ground, with violence, a military coup or people’s revolt as the only outcome?” If only. But one way of looking at Thai politics since 1932 is as a “permanent counter-revolution.” When a democratic government takes power, it is unable to defang the military. When a military government takes power, it is unable to quash the democratic spirit of the populace.

The military now has come closest to doing this with its recent constitution and regulations. How democrats can permanently tame the military and royalists (and in a democratic way) remains the question for those who aspire for a more liberal and stable democracy in Thailand. Whittling away at the monarch’s prerogative, then, may be only a first step towards this, but it’s certainly the easiest of the two major battles.