In his speech to the protesters occupying the streets around Government House in Bangkok on the night of October 14, Anon Nampa, a key leader of the country’s recent student-led protests, warned the government and the palace: “Do not use force to disperse us. If you do, this country will never be the same. And the demands will be reduced to just one” – by which he meant reform of the powerful Thai monarchy.
Many doubted how realistic Anon’s vision was, given that previous mass democratic protests have been met with the use of excessive violence and/or military coup d’états. The answer manifested on October 17 when, despite an emergency decree banning gatherings of five or more people, the protests expanded across the nation. Anon seemingly knew his people well. Thailand, for a while, has been heading down a path in which the monarchy will be irrelevant or redundant if substantive reform is not adopted. What factors lie behind this epochal shift?
Thailand’s current outbreak of protests is part of a long saga of political struggles for popular sovereignty. The latest iteration of student-led protests, which are now happening daily and nationwide, has three main demands: the resignation of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha; a genuinely democratic constitution; and reform of the monarchy. The call for a once unquestionable institution to be placed under constitutional control is unprecedented. This is mainly due to the existence of the country’s draconian lese-majeste law and its heavily politicized interpretation and enforcement.
For the protesters, the palace lies at the core of many of Thailand’s political problems, especially the form of limited and unstable democracy that has plagued the country for several decades and which characterizes the present government. Under Prayut’s leadership, the country has witnessed an rising poverty rates, rigged national elections and other political and judicial abnormalities. An increasing budget for the palace at a time when most Thais have been severely impacted by the economic impacts of COVID-19, and King Vajiralongkorn’s apparently growing power over several sectors of governance, explain the reasons for this historic demand. While it sounds ambitious and radical to many Thais, changes in several conditions over the years make it likely that sooner or later the movement will win.
The end of the media monopoly
In the new media era, a monopoly of content is impossible. Before the emergence of social media, YouTube, Netflix and other alternative media sources, the notion of “Nation, Religion and King” – long defined from the top down as the core of Thai identity – were inculcated through the dominant sources of information in the Kingdom: the national press, a few free TV channels and the school curriculum. Daily television news coverage featured royal activities and, on special occasions, documentaries about royal members’ roles in Thailand’s development, their kind personalities and genius skills.
Such features are centrally produced and thus uniform. The teaching of Thai history in schools focuses on the roles of Thai monarchs in keeping the country free from foreign occupation. Nationalistic content, and Buddhist beliefs that past lives’ merits and misdeeds define a person’s social status in the present, are common in Thai soap operas. The belief helps lay the foundation for unquestioning respect and love for the monarchy and the royal family. While older generations continue to absorb this content and mentality, younger generations watch Thai television programs on platforms such as Netflix, YouTube or Facebook Live, all of which bypass the royal news. This creates new avenues for the understanding of Thailand’s history and core values.
At the forefront of the new protest movement are young people between the ages of 15 and 25, a demographic that tends to consume more modern and international content. Popular among them are Thai series explicitly portraying youth issues like sex and homosexuality, including Hormones: The Series. A number of them follow news and the work of their favorite artists, mostly Korean pop stars, via Twitter.
With the arrival of Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and other online platforms, anyone can produce and post content, or become a social influencer. Far from enjoying a monopoly, the state and royalists are just parts of a larger media ecosystem and have to compete with an infinite number of alternative content producers.
All that is sacred is profaned
The idea that the king and the queen are parents of the nation, and that Thailand’s well-being depends on the institution of the monarchy, has been firmly established since the late 1950s. To a large extent, this royalist ideology rested on the foundation of King Bhumibol Adulyadej and Queen Sirikit, widely revered for their well-publicized social work and other efforts to lift Thailand out of poverty. Images and footage of their visits to rural areas appear everywhere in mainstream Thai media.
Unlike his parents and sisters, however, King Vajiralongkorn has not been close to his people. The Thai government and royalists have scarce materials with which to reproduce the same image that King Bhumibol enjoyed for his son. Moreover, rumors about his scandal-plagued personal life and abuses of power have circulated widely for decades, long before he assumed the throne in 2016. With the new media they are now accompanied by images and videos and sometimes confirmed by the Royal Gazette.
Under the reign of King Bhumibol, respect and love for the monarch and his family developed into a cult. But a decade before his passing in 2016, royal popularity was already in decline. Illness and advanced age limited the king and queen’s activities, consigning these memories to older generations. Combined with changes in the structure of the state’s social welfare provisions – for example, the universal healthcare scheme and the One Tambon (sub-district) One Product program – royal development projects have lost the prominence that they once enjoyed.
Moreover, the palace’s intervention in politics was indirectly highlighted to the public during the Red Shirt protests that followed former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s removal from power in a coup in 2006. Queen Sirikit’s attendance at the funeral of a royalist Yellow Shirt protester in 2008 disillusioned a number of the Red Shirts and supporters of Thaksin, who had previously believed that the palace was politically neutral. Meanwhile, critiques about the palace’s role in politics and development, previously confined to small academic circles, started to reach a wider audience. Following the coup in 2014, the crackdown on critics of the monarchy forced them into exile but also allowed them to speak freely against the institution via social media.
Prominent critics of the Thai monarchy, such as Somsak Jeamteerasakul, Pavin Chachavalpongpun and Andrew MacGregor Marshall, all have large followings on their Facebook and Twitter accounts. Abnormalities like the heavy use of the judiciary and other institutions like the Election Commission to undermine opposition parties, to say nothing of King Vajiralongkorn’s official interventions in the constitution and military, have caused young Thais to ask whether the critiques of royal power, both Thai and foreign, are valid. And many are looking for answers online. The Royalists Marketplace, a Facebook site founded by Pavin last April that discusses and shares critical opinions about the palace, now has over two million members despite being shut in August. Several discussions even air criticisms of King Bhumibol.
Members willing to research more about the monarchy’s history can read books and historical accounts compiled in digital form and posted on the Royalists Marketplace page. Facebook and other social media platforms have features that allow people to support their arguments with references and scanned primary sources. The accounts can reach a large audience through multiple shares and reposts, and sometimes spread like wildfire via Twitter. With the help of technology, revisionist views of Thai history – and the importance of King Bhumibol and the palace therein – continue to grow.
On Twitter and Facebook, mockery and derogatory language are now routinely employed to undermine the demi-god status of the royal family. With millions of tweets and posts airing such sentiments, many under fake names, enforcement of the lese-majeste law has become unviable.
“We are the destiny you cannot avoid”
At present, there are no signs that any faction within the military will break off its alliance with the palace to stand with the people and democracy, nor any sign that the palace will accept the protesters’ demands for reform. But over the past few weeks, the anti-government protests have become a nationwide trend and increasingly decentralized. Violent suppression by the security forces or even a coup would be archaic solutions. The protesters have already defied an emergency decree and other suppressive laws, while the use of security forces only works in limited areas and with limited numbers of dissidents.
The youth leaders are also ready to play a long game, as time and technology are on their side. With the government unable to control social media, and the revisionist historical account becoming increasingly widespread, criticism and disrespect toward the monarchy will continue to multiply and be passed on to the next generations, including those in the security forces. As a recent protest message put it, “We are the destiny you cannot avoid.”
Sasiwan Chingchit is an independent development and research consultant working in Thailand and Myanmar. She previously worked for The Asia Foundation and used to teach at Prince of Songkla University, Thailand.