The Fight for Democracy in Thailand

The Fight for Democracy in Thailand

The unprecedented mass protests against the monarchy show no signs of flagging.

Pro-democracy protesters give the three-finger salute in Bangkok on October 20, 2020 (Mladen Antonov/AFP via Getty Images)

In the early morning hours of October 15, plainclothes police knocked on the door of the hotel room where student activist Panusaya Sithijirawattanakul, known by her nickname “Rung,” was resting after two days of protests in Bangkok. They read the charges out to Rung and another activist, Nutchanon Pairoj, and informed them of their rights. Rung tore up her arrest warrant before the police forcibly carried her and Nutchanon from the room in wheelchairs, down the service elevator, and out the backdoor of the hotel. In arresting them and others last week, the Thai authorities seemed to hope to end the movement calling for an end to dictatorship and reform of the monarchy by locking its leaders away behind bars. But as the mushrooming protests this past weekend and early this week illustrate, the tactic has failed. What began as a student movement questioning the role of the monarchy in Thailand has swiftly turned into one in which the people are taking up a new role and placing themselves, not the king, at the center of the political system.

Rung’s arrest came as no surprise. Every day since August 10, she has awaited a knock on the door. That evening, she stood on a protest stage at Thammasat University’s Rangsit campus and inaugurated the United Front of Thammasat and Demonstration (UFTD) by reading a ten-point declaration. Surrounded by falling glitter, the bespectacled Rung demanded limits on the exercise of authority by the king, including an end to royal endorsement of coups; public audits of royal finances; and the abolition of restrictions on speech about the monarchy. The forthright declaration broke political and social ground by speaking what has been unspeakable since the nominal but incomplete end of absolute monarchy in Thailand on June 24, 1932. A combination of performative reverence for the former king, Rama IX, which historian Thongchai Winichakul has characterized as hyper-royalism, and the country’s harsh lèse majesté law has silenced criticism, or even questions, until now. For daring to speak, Rung has been charged with sedition, using sound amplification equipment without a permit, and violation of the Computer Crimes Act, the Emergency Decree, and the Communicable Diseases Act.

Following the most recent coup, on May 22, 2014—the thirteenth since the end of the absolute monarchy—General Prayuth Chan-ocha and his junta, the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), presided over the most repressive regime since the counterinsurgent Cold War regimes of the 1960s and 1970s. The coup took place as the transition in rule from an aging Rama IX to his son, who does not command the same respect, loomed. Under the NCPO, dissidents were relentlessly threatened, surveilled, and imprisoned. The harshest punishments were reserved for those who criticized the monarchy, with a record thirty-five-year sentence meted out for ten Facebook posts in one case. After Rama IX’s death in 2016 and the beginning of the reign of Rama X, prosecutions went down but republican critics in exile began to be murdered and disappeared.

After the March 2019 elections, which were plagued by extensive interference by the military junta, failed to bring a promised return to democracy, youth and other citizens began organizing in dissent, first online and then in the streets. Flouting the proscription against speech about the monarchy, Twitter became a lively location of discussion ranging from complaints about traffic delays caused by the movement of royals around Bangkok to asking if the monarchy served any purpose at all. Secondary and university students across the country held protests in early 2020 with many demands, including an end to authoritarianism in education and rights for LGBTQ students, with the broader goal of creating a democracy in the country in which they were coming of age. The coronavirus pandemic and strict controls by the military-dominated government in mid-March shut down the wave of growing street protests.

In June 2020, government critic Wanchalearm Satsaksit disappeared in exile—the ninth exile to be allegedly murdered while living or traveling in Cambodia, Laos, or Vietnam. All nine cases remain stalled with little hope of the perpetrators being identified and brought to justice. For many observers, the failure to resolve in any of these cases suggests the involvement of the monarchy, but the lèse majesté law forecloses investigation into the king. Until Wanchalearm’s disappearance, this fear also kept public action around the cases limited to family and a small group of human rights activists. But the ninth disappearance, which came after many weeks without domestic transmission of COVID-19, sparked a return to the streets with demands focused on solutions to long-standing violence and injustice. Their actions reflected their recognition that if citizens cannot question the powerful—whether they wear the green of the military or the gilt of the monarchy—without risking arrest or death, then other forms of permissible political participation lack meaning.

During the eighty-five days between July 18 and October 10, there were at least 246 protests in sixty-two provinces around the country, with the savvy and verve of the organizers reflected in the presence of cartoon hamsters singing songs against dictatorship, fantasy movie and book tie-ins, and a replica and hologram projection of a now-missing monument to the end of the absolute monarchy. Three consistent demands emerged: cease intimidation of critics of the government, begin drafting a new constitution, and dissolve parliament. Reform of the monarchy was added to the picture after UFTD’s August 10 declaration. During this same period, according to Thai Lawyers for Human Rights, at least sixty-five activists were charged with crimes and 179 were followed, harassed, or intimidated following their dissident actions in the streets or online.

As protests grew in size and the calls for reform of the monarchy were put in clear, explicit, and detailed terms, arrests of protest leaders, including the arrests of student activist Panupong Jadnok and lawyer-poet Arnon Nampa, began. Each time someone was arrested, they were released shortly in the face of outrage and increased protests outside the police stations, courts, and prisons where they were held.

But it is the series of daily protests that began last week, on October 13, the anniversary of Rama IX’s death, that have locked the people, the state, and the monarchy into a battle unprecedented in Thai history.

The first volley took place on when protesters threw paint and yelled “release our friends” as Rama X’s car drove toward the Grand Palace for ceremonies marking his father’s death. He had recently arrived in Thailand with his wife and mistress from Germany, where he prefers to spend his time. (Bringing an end to his extraterritorial rule, as well as the significant public funds that support his lavish European lifestyle as ordinary Thais suffer under an economy ravaged by the pandemic, is one of UFTD’s demands.) A portion of the protesters, including Jatupat “Pai” Boonpattararaksa, a lawyer and former student activist who was released in 2019 after spending two and a half years in prison for sharing a BBC news article about Rama X, were quickly rounded up.

The following night, protesters marched to Government House and were dispersed by police in the early hours of the morning. At 4 a.m. the next morning, a severe state of emergency was declared, criminalizing public demonstrations of five or more persons and giving the authorities extensive powers of arrest, search, and detention. A few hours later, the police arrested Rung and Nutchanon, along with other activists throughout the country, including fellow UFTD organizer Parit “Penguin” Chiwarak. Most of the warrants, including Rung’s, were dated from protests in August and September. The authorities perhaps thought they were waiting for an opportune moment, but they miscalculated. The arrests have failed to shut down the movement.

Before being remanded, Rung penned a letter on a piece of paper she adorned with a line drawing of a rainbow (Rung means “rainbow” in Thai) that read: “If today I am not able to return to you, do not lose heart. I was prepared to sacrifice this for our struggle. You do not need to worry about me. Keep your morale up in the current situation. Everyone may see that the leaders are disappearing one by one. But in truth, we are with you always, we are with you in the form of ideals.”

On the evening of October 16, tens of thousands of people, mostly secondary school and university students in uniform, massed in Ratchaprasong, Bangkok’s shopping and financial district, in violation of the state of emergency decree. Repression was swift, with high-powered water cannons laced with chemicals deployed against the students. But like the arrests, the repression that night only caused the movement to expand. Outraged statements and declarations, including from those who previously leaned royalist or avoided politics, such as physicians, condemned the use of chemical agents against peaceful, unarmed protesters.

A series of fluid, leaderless protests inspired by last year’s Hong Kong protests took place across Bangkok and throughout the provinces over the weekend. They were all peaceful, all organized without the program of fiery speeches that characterized earlier protests, and were marked by care: protesters distributed raincoats, helmets, and snacks to one another. They occupied key intersections as they chanted and sang old and new Thai protest songs.

The confluence of criticism of the monarchy and the demonstration of concern and solidarity for fellow citizens portends an unprecedented democratic future in Thailand. The people are putting themselves in harm’s way for one another, rather than harming fellow Thais to defend the monarchy as they did on October 6, 1976, calling for the abrogation of democracy and a coup to protect the monarchy as they did prior to the September 19, 2006 coup, or sitting at home quietly as the army killed red-shirt protesters, who were often cast as not-quite-loyal-enough, in April and May of 2010.

Still, as the protests enter a second week, the outcome is far from certain. The people’s courage is not waning, and they continue to make real the ideals that Rung left them before being put behind bars. A new announcement that a military base has been designated as a detention center for those who protest in defiance of the emergency decree has not kept the people off the streets. On Monday afternoon, UFTD gave the government an ultimatum, calling for the prime minister and cabinet to resign immediately, revise the constitution in line with the people’s demands, reform the institution of the monarchy, revoke the emergency decree, and release all those being held. By Monday evening, TLHR reported that of the at least eighty-seven people arrested since October 13, only eight were still behind bars. Rung herself was slated for release on bail Tuesday morning, but was immediately re-arrested along with Parit “Penguin” Chiwarak on another set of charges before being sent to the court for another remand hearing likely on Wednesday.

The government is threatening harsh measures, but has enforced them unevenly. On Monday morning, censorship of four major independent media outlets and a student activist Facebook page was announced; on Tuesday, a court ordered Voice TV off air. The other four continue to broadcast and disseminate news. Thailand’s history of coups and violence backed by the institution of the monarchy, which pushed people into the streets, means that they remain unsafe today. That won’t change until the monarchy is no longer at the center of political life.

Tyrell Haberkorn is Professor of Southeast Asian Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a 2020 Guggenheim Fellow. She is the author of several books on Thailand, including most recently In Plain Sight: Impunity and Human Rights in Thailand (2018).