Thailand’s Protesters Are Battling to Redefine National Identity

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Thailand’s Protesters Are Battling to Redefine National Identity

Underlying the movement is a strong desire to reframe what it means to be Thai, moving away from total reliance on the monarchy and military’s narrative.

Thailand’s Protesters Are Battling to Redefine National Identity

Over 1,000 demonstrators braved heavy rain on October 31, 2021 to rally against the government and to support free speech in central Bangkok, Thailand.

Credit: Cory Wright

The ruling of Thailand’s Constitutional Court to dissolve the popular pro-democracy party, the Future Forward Party, on February 21, 2020, put pro-democracy activists on a direct collision course with the Thai state and its ruling institutions. While COVID-19 complicated the movement, protests erupted again on October 31 as Thailand begins to reopen.

The current protests have roots in the earlier 2014 protests when the military seized power in a coup led by General Prayut Chan-o-cha, who has been prime minister since then. With the absence of a national consensus on conflict settlement mechanisms, political disputes have become more intense. This has resulted in a historical cyclical crisis of legitimacy, and coups and civil disobedience used as political settlements. The death of King Bhumibol in 2016 further destabilized the country, and the monarchy. His son, King Vajiralongkorn, has not been able to provide any real political stability, allowing the military to position itself as an arbiter according to the 2017 Constitution.

Thailand is facing two converging crises. First, a crisis of legitimacy between differing models of political structure and governance has emerged. Protesters openly challenge Thailand’s political foundations of hierarchy, clientelism, and personal connections, arguing for a reformed monarchy. This makes the 2020 and subsequent protests distinct from previous protests calling for monarchic transparency and accountability. The fact that high school students are protesting points to a generational divide in Thais’ hopes for their political system between younger Thais and those who want to preserve the status quo.

A corollary to the crisis in legitimacy is a contest over who gets to define Thai nationalism and Thai national identity (khwan pen thai): state institutions or Thais themselves? If the latter, then which demographic of Thai citizens are catalysts of such changes? Increased democratization in Thailand is underway, and the monarchy and other institutions can no longer ignore criticism and dissent. But the nature of change will have to be dictated by Thais themselves.

Brief Historical Context

The events of June 24, 1932, loom large in modern Thai historiography, public perception, and identity. On that day, the Siamese Revolution saw the absolutist monarchy of Somdet Chaofa Prajadhipok Sakdidej reorganized as a constitutional monarchy. In a revolution organized and carried out by the Khana Ratsadon (People’s Party), the absolute monarchy was replaced by a civilian-military alliance and a reconstituted constitutional monarchy.

Under President Pridi Banomyong, the People’s Party’s Six Principles attempted to provide a blueprint for democratization. Among the principles were universal education, equality of all Thais, the supreme power of the Thai people, and to maintain the rights of the Thai people.

The People’s Party, while being inspired by democratic ideals, did not live up to them. Field Marshal Plaek Phibunsongkhram, commonly known as Phibun, took power and instituted a military dictatorship. Phibun reversed the People’s Party’s democratization trends and outlawed all political parties. While avowedly anti-royal, Phibun also embraced ultranationalism and attempted to strictly define Thai identity even while cracking down on dissent.

The pendulum swung back the other way under Pridi Banomyong, leader of the civilian wing of the People’s Party, and prime minister of Thailand, who oversaw the 1946 Constitution. The 1946 Constitution can be thought of as one of Thailand’s most democratic constitutions, along with the later 1997 Constitution. The 1946 Constitution stipulated the creation of a bicameral legislature, which was to be fully elected. (This was not realized, however, until the implementation of the 1997 Constitution, which was itself repealed by the 2007 Constitution, as the process of making and unmaking Thai democracy continued.)

The 1946 Constitution lasted until 1957, when another field marshal, Sarit Thanarat, staged a coup in September 1957, which saw a return of the monarchy to political life. Attempts at recalibrating Thai political structure resulted in ongoing struggles between civilian politicians and royalist elites, who would use political parties as pressure points. It also deepened the cleavage between competing narratives of nationalism and national identity. One vision, that of official nationalism, was promoted by the established elites and the monarchy. The other, that of popular nationalism, which has been more of a bottom-up initiative, envisioned a definition of Thai identity outside of the aegis of traditional elites and the monarchy.

These longstanding friction points continue today. Since 2006, Thai politics and rhetoric have become increasingly polarized, with political opponents reduced to being categorized as red and yellow shirts, and currently, between “royalist” and “anti-royalist.”  The monarchy in particular has been at the center of 21st century political debate and increased polarization in Thailand since the coup of 2006, when the Royal Thai Army overthrew the caretaker government of Thaksin Shinawatra and his “red shirt” supporters.

Royalist Narratives and the 2020 Protests

The current cycle of protests began as a result of the dissolution of the Future Forward Party in February 2020, but it is also part of a longer historical cycle of coups and countercoups, which typifies Thailand’s lack of conflict resolution mechanisms. It also underlines the cleavages of nationalism and national identity narratives.

For the monarchy, and its supporters, the protesters are committing a cardinal sin to the nationalist narrative, that of disunity, which it equates to treason. Thai political vocabulary, much like Thai society, has undergone increasing polarization. One highly provocative term used by royalists to describe political opponents is “Chang-chart,” which can be translated to “nation-hater.”

Unity is given pre-eminence in Thai nationalist discourse. The military coup against the Sinawatra government was couched in terms of “preservation,” and those who resisted the coup were seen as resisting the monarchy, and in effect their “Thainess.” The justification of “preservation” would again be used by the military in 2014, which moved to act in the face of protests against the court-ordered removal of Yingluck Sinawatra, who was democratically elected but found guilty of abuse of power. The subsequent coup and saw General Prayut Chan-o-cha impose martial law. He still rules the country today, having been elected prime minister in deeply flawed polls in 2019.

In the context of the polarized context around national identity, the infamous charge of lèse-majesté symbolizes a clearly demarcated political cleavage where the monarchy is itself the central issue of identity creation. More practically, it also serves as a perfect catch-all, in that pro-democracy protesters are inherently arguing for monarchic reform, which the government paints as being ipso facto an offense against the monarchy.

The case of Anchan P, a former civil servant, is telling. Originally charged in 2015 for sharing clips on Facebook and YouTube deemed critical of the monarchy, Anchan, aged 65, was sentenced to 43 years in prison in January 2021. The sentence, the harshest sent down under Prayut’s rule, was meant to dissuade further protests, it has only served to inflame tensions further. It also highlights the unequal nature of the two differing camps: Government institutions have been able to rely on the military for their own ends, and such entrenchment will not see them willingly give up their power.

Protest Narratives and What Comes Next

Broadly speaking, Thailand’s pro-democracy activists seek to restrict the role of the monarchy in political life, as well as political self-expression. Arnon Nampa, a human rights lawyer, is perhaps the most prominent figure looking to reframe Thailand’s monarchy as a constitutional monarchy. A 10-point August 2020 Facebook statement put out by the United Front of Thammasat, which captured the protest mood, advocates the revocation of article 6 of the 2017 Constitution and article 112 of the Thai Criminal Code, which criminalizes lèse-majesté. The statement also demands that the king cease his support of coups and stop attempting to influence public opinion.

In an open letter published by the Thai Enquirer on October 26, 2020, an anonymous protester redefined the concept of what it means to love the monarchy, religion, and the nation. Rather than reject these concepts, the author states that all the aforementioned should be defined by the people, not by the government. And the protesters who are seeking to redefine Thai identity tend to be young, educated, and globally connected. If they succeed, the king, whose traditional role was to protect, would see a redefined role. In addition, the leading role of women in the protests points to the potential of a new manifestation of nationalism, and new traditionalism, based on a more inclusive and civic minded notion of what it means to be Thai, which emanates in a bottom-up way.

In any case, COVID-19 has provided an additional excuse for the government to oppose protesters. Ahead of the planned November 1 re-opening of 17 areas to international tourists, the Thai government issued an October 30 ban on rallies, because of the deemed risk of spreading the virus. That didn’t deter at least a thousand Thais from taking to the streets of Bangkok on October 31.

The government is living on borrowed time if it thinks that the fervor of protests will subside, or that the continued detention of protest leaders will quell public discontent. Thailand is on a course toward increased democratization. The legitimacy of the monarchy, while still having support, is being challenged and is losing prestige – a trend helped by the fact that the new king does not inspire nearly the same veneration as his long-ruling father.

Ultimately, it is the desire for a more equitable society that is driving the protests. Among Thais aged 40 and under, there is frustration with the number of recent military coups, and a correlating pessimism about the future. The more repressive the government action against protesters, the more it is showcasing its own fragility and weakness. More people are recognizing this and feel emboldened not only by the prospect of a more equitable future, but also by their own sense of Thai identity.