Since February 2020, thousands of students across Thailand have taken to the streets in the hopes of ending the nation’s military dictatorship. Protesters are demonstrating against the world’s richest monarch, King Vajiralongkorn, and his military government, headed by Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-Cha. Thailand’s ruling class has been criticized for undemocratic governance and human rights violations, including anti-LGBTQIA+ legislation, political censorship, and abuse within the Thai military. Students are leading protests of an unprecedented nature, considering Thailand’s lèse-majesté law which criminalizes criticism of the monarchy. This ongoing struggle is a watershed moment in Thai history, representing a rupture with an oligarchical regime that retains anachronistic elements from the times of Siamese kingdoms.
Youth-led Resistance to Dictatorship
Ongoing political unrest began in late February after the Constitutional Court of Thailand dissolved the Future Forward Party, a progressive alliance popular among younger demographics. Students organized sit-ins and catwalks, sang Japanese cartoon songs to mock Thai ruling elites, and held Harry Potter-themed demonstrations satirizing King Vajiralongkorn as “He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named” due to Thailand’s lèse-majesté law. In response, the government and school staff began harassing students for expressing anti-government views, and have censored symbols of the white bows and three-fingered salute widely used in Thailand’s 2014 pro-democracy movement. At the time of writing, authorities have arrested numerous protesters under the country’s criminal defamation law, a move that has been widely condemned by international organizations.
These authoritarian acts have galvanized young people across the country to call for the resignation of Chan-o-cha and dissolution of his administration, as well as broader reforms for Thailand’s constitutional monarchy. Such demands to reform the monarchy have not been met in nearly a century, due to the historical legacy of late King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who was worshipped as a patron god by Thais. Although King Vajiralongkorn inherited his $30 billion fortune in 2016, he has not retained his father’s popularity as the new ruler.
Despite the movement gaining momentum since August, Thailand’s older generations remain skeptical about the youth-led movement, criticizing its demands as disrespectful toward the monarchy. This generational divide reveals issues that run deep in the Land of Smiles as younger generations fight against a bleak future of authoritarianism, with their distressing mantra, “Let it end with our generation,” echoing across the nation.
The Resurgence of Student Activism
Current protests have reinvigorated students’ role in politics decades after Thailand’s 1973 and 1976 student uprisings. Since the abolition of Thailand’s absolute monarchy in 1932, the country has undergone 12 coups d’état, and has ratified 20 different constitutions and charters. Despite these uprisings and statutory changes, Thai monarchs have been remarkably successful at sanctioning military regimes to maintain political order, until the current demonstrations.
In 1973, Thailand was undergoing a period of economic duress, as rice shortages and inflation despaired the nation. Consequently, Thammasat University students organized demonstrations known as “The Ten Days” that forced then-Prime Minister and former military general Thanom Kittikachorn to resign. However, three years later, King Bhumibol pardoned Kittikachorn, allowing his return to Thailand as a monk. This royal impunity was indicative of the illiberal military and palace networks endemic to Thai institutions, including monastic communities. In response to Kittakachorn’s exoneration, students took to Bangkok’s streets, again, but were silenced by supporters of the monarchy. On October 6th, 1976, royalist supporters, among them armed forces and civilians, killed approximately 100 students in what became known as the Thammasat University massacre.
Origins of the Kingdom of Thailand
Although past uprisings mainly revolved around temporary economic and political crises that ended with royal interventions, tying Thailand’s instability to these issues would be a reductionist view of Thailand’s complex political history. Thailand’s sociopolitical problems date back over a century ago, at the juncture between the Kingdom of Siam and European influence.
Despite being the only Southeast Asian polity to resist colonial occupation, the Siamese kingdom was indirectly acculturated by Western influence. By establishing sovereign borders to defend against European encroachment, the Kingdom departed from their customary mandala political system by devising a constitutional monarchy that retained elements of Thai Buddhist kingship. Thai royalism is based on traditional Buddhist principles and cosmology, and has historically been legitimized through royal patronage.
This political transition stifled cultural pluralism through a “thaification” process, as the monarchy promoted national unity based on Thai identity and Theravada Buddhism. This new unitary state centralized power not only in the capital of Bangkok, but also in the hands of the King. This new political system ultimately reflected the authoritarian power relations that were present in the former mandala system. However, the lack of secularism in Thailand was highly detrimental to democratic movements, which favoured civil governments instead of an oligarchy.
Vestiges of the Kingdom of Siam coupled with Western influence reinforced elements of Buddhist kingship, such as a karma-shaped social hierarchy and the godlike status of monarchs, that legitimized the new Thai monarchy. What restrains most Thais from criticizing the royal family is their understanding of themselves as earthly beings graced by a heavenly King, rather than fear of retaliation due to Thailand’s lèse-majesté law. Patriotism and a paradoxical moral order contrary to core Buddhist principles prevented Thailand from undergoing a more robust democratic transition, despite the country’s enduring political unrest.
Although growing inequalities continue to alienate and divide Thailand’s population, these divisions have forged an even stronger bond among the youth. This camaraderie also extends to fellow Hongkongers and Taiwanese protesters, with whom they formed the pro-democracy Milk Tea Alliance. In October, pro-democracy protesters extended their demonstrations to Thailand’s German embassy, as King Vajiralongkorn owns a residence in Germany. Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government expressed concerns about the King’s abuse of power, prompting King Vajiralongkorn to indicate some willingness to compromise with protestors. If the controversial Thai regime faces international pressures in addition to domestic instability, the ongoing protests may be the push that overthrows the tyrannical regime in the Land of Smiles.
Edited by Dana Malapit.
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and they do not reflect the position of the McGill Journal of Political Studies or the Political Science Students’ Association.