"Why do we need a king?": Thai political protests demand democracy

Amy Langley, Chief International Officer

Despite law criminalizing their actions, more than 10,000 activists have taken to the streets of Bangkok, defying the Thai monarchy and demanding constitutional reform.

Since mid-July, Thai students have been protesting the monarchy and pro-royalist government. However, the demonstrations moved beyond student involvement on Sunday the 16th of August, with protesters gathering in front of a democracy monument and under a giant picture of the current king chanting “down with dictatorship” and “the country belongs to the people”. For over 8 hours, demonstrators rallied in Bangkok, Thailand’s capital, chanting “down with feudalism, long live the people” and stating that “we will no longer be dust for anyone”. On the democracy monument, where protesters congregated, was projected an image of the words “why do we need a king?”. The phrase has also turned into a hashtag, which has been reposted on social media over 1 million times since first appearing online. The protest is the largest in Thailand since the 2014 coup.

Under the supervision of 600 police, Panusaya Sithijirawattanakul, one of the protest student leaders, read out the 10-point manifesto for democratic reform. The aim of the demonstrations ranges from constitutional reform to the dissolution of parliament – all with the central aim of changing the balance of power in a country where the military has more political sway than a ballot box. Protesters are also calling for protection of human rights following the disappearance and presumed killing in Cambodia of Thai activist speaking out against the crown, Wanchalearm Satsaksit, who had been living in exile there since 2014.

However, action against critics of the crown and dissenters of the Thai government is enshrined in the Thai lese-majeste laws. Under article 112 of the Criminal Code, those criticizing the crown can be imprisoned for up to 15 years for their dissent. The lese-majeste legislation has seen Anon Nampa, a prominent human rights lawyer, and another activist, Panupong Jaadnok, arrested for their actions in the protest. Gatherings in their entirety are currently illegal in Thailand due to the state of emergency declared following the Covid-19 crisis. In response to the demonstrations, army commander General Apirat Kongsompong, claimed that protesters harboured “hatred of the nation” (“chung chart”) and that this ‘disease’ was far worse than Covid-19. A small group of pro-monarchy protesters also gathered against the democracy rallies.

Thailand’s conservative government, comprised of mostly royal and military personnel, can no longer ignore the calls for a new political order. Although Thai people are born into a society where the monarchy is heralded as a critical keystone of Thai society, critics and those fed up with the monarchical power are seeking a new constitution.

The very start of every constitution since the revolution in 1932 that resulted in a constitutional monarchy being substituted for an absolute monarchy has contained the two phrases "The King shall be enthroned in a position of revered worship" and "No person shall expose the King to any sort of accusation or action". Protesters are calling for a new constitution that brings the monarchy within the ambit of some legal constraints, including allowing for free speech in dissent of the crown. 24-year-old student activist, Patsalawalee Tanakitwiboonpon, says “our dream is to have a monarchy which is truly under the constitution”.

Many criticize the monarchy, ruled by King Vajiralongkorn since 2016, for extending the reach of military power over Thai politics. Additionally, the king was given a 16-pound gold crown and huge fortune at his coronation in 2019, making him one of the wealthiest royals in the world. Given the worsening economic conditions and deep wealth divide in Thailand following the Covid-19 crisis, Thai citizens are taking an unprecedented stand against Thailand’s embedded monarchical power.

Such criticism, however, has been met with rigid government action. For example, the October 1976 anti-royalist ralleys saw police and right-wing vigilantes open fire on protesting students – killing, lynching and beating those involved. More recently, the pro-democracy Future Forward Party (FFP) was dissolved by court order in February this year, following the dissatisfaction of ultra-royalists in power.

Survivor of 1976 massacre, Professor of history at the University of Wisconsin, Thongchai Winichakul, says “the genie is out of the bottle”. Winichakul further commented that “society won't stop, change won't stop. The only thing we can do is to take care that the change takes place with as little bloodshed as possible”. These previously-unseen protests are pushing Thailand into unchartered territory, meaning no one knows what will happen next.

Check out this article for more information about the demonstrations: https://www.smh.com.au/world/asia/down-with-dictatorship-protesters-take-to-the-streets-of-bangkok-20200817-p55mar.html. You can also read more about the protests here: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-53770939.

For more information on the lese-majeste laws in Thailand, follow this link: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-29628191.