Thailand’s Perspectives for Political Change – The Diplomat
In his address to the demonstrators occupying the streets around Government House in Bangkok on the night of October 14, Anon Nampa, one of the main leaders of the country’s recent student protests, warned the government and the palace: “Do not use the force to disperse us. If you do, this country will never be the same again. And the demands will be reduced to one ”- by which he meant the reform of the powerful Thai monarchy.
Many doubted the realism of Anon’s vision, given that previous mass democratic protests have met with the use of excessive violence and / or military coups. The response came on October 17 when, despite an emergency decree banning gatherings of five or more people, protests spread across the country. Anon apparently knew his people well. Thailand has for some time been heading down a path in which the monarchy will be useless or redundant if fundamental reform is not adopted. What factors are behind this change of epoch?
The current outbreak of protests in Thailand is part of a long saga of political struggles for popular sovereignty. The latest iteration of the student-led protests, which now take place daily and across the country, has three main demands: the resignation of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha; a truly democratic constitution; and the reform of the monarchy. The call for a once indisputable institution to be brought under constitutional control is unprecedented. This is mainly due to the existence of the country’s draconian lese majesty law and its highly politicized interpretation and application.
For protesters, the palace is at the heart of many of Thailand’s political problems, especially the limited and unstable form of democracy that has plagued the country for decades and characterized the current government. Under Prayut’s leadership, the country experienced a rising poverty rates, rigged national elections and other political and judicial anomalies. A growing budget for the palace at a time when most Thais have been hit hard by the economic impacts of COVID-19, and King Vajiralongkorn’s seemingly growing power over several areas of governance, explain the reasons for this historic demand. While this sounds ambitious and sweeping 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 age of new media, a monopoly on 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 top to bottom as the core of Thai identity – was instilled by sources. dominant information in the Kingdom: the national press, some free television channels and the school program. Daily television news coverage featured royal activities and, on special occasions, documentaries on the role of the Royal Members in Thailand’s development, their kind personalities and their genius talents.
Such characteristics are produced centrally and therefore uniform. The teaching of Thai history in schools focuses on the role of Thai monarchs in keeping the country safe from foreign occupation. Nationalist content and Buddhist beliefs that the merits and misdeeds of past lives define a person’s social standing in the present are common in Thai soap operas. Belief helps lay the groundwork for unconditional respect and love for the monarchy and the royal family. As the older generations continue to absorb this content and mindset, the younger generations watch Thai TV programs on platforms like Netflix, YouTube or Facebook Live, all of which bypass royal news. This creates new avenues for understanding 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. The most popular Thai series among them explicitly portray youthful issues like sex and homosexuality, including Hormones: the series. A number of them follow the news and work of their favorite artists, mostly Korean pop stars, via Twitter.
With the advent 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 the royalists are just part of a larger media ecosystem and must compete with an endless number of producers of alternative content.
All that is sacred is desecrated
The idea that the King and Queen are the parents of the nation, and that the welfare of Thailand 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 founding 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 all over Thailand’s mainstream media.
Unlike his parents and sisters, however, King Vajiralongkorn was not close to his people. The Thai government and royalists have little material available to reproduce the same image King Bhumibol loved for his son. Additionally, rumors about his personal life plagued by scandals and abuse of power circulated widely for decades, long before he took the throne in 2016. With new media, they are now accompanied by images and videos and sometimes confirmed by the Royal Gazette.
During the reign of King Bhumibol, respect and love for the monarch and his family became a cult. But a decade before his death in 2016, royal popularity was already waning. Illness and advanced age limited the activities of the King and Queen, sending these memories back to older generations. Combined with changes in the structure of state welfare arrangements – for example, the Universal Health Care Scheme and the One Tambon (subdistrict) One Product program – royal development projects have lost their importance. they once enjoyed.
Moreover, the palace’s intervention in politics was indirectly brought to the public attention during the Red Shirt protests that followed the impeachment of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in a coup in 2006. The Queen Sirikit’s presence at the funeral of a royalist Yellow Shirt protester in 2008 disappointed a number of Red Shirts and Thaksin supporters, who had previously believed the palace to be politically neutral. Meanwhile, critiques of the palace’s role in politics and development, previously reserved for small academic circles, have started to reach a wider audience. Following the 2014 coup, the crackdown on critics of the monarchy forced them into exile but also allowed them to speak out freely against the institution via social networks.
Prominent critics of the Thai monarchy, such as Somsak Jeamteerasakul, Pavin Chachavalpongpun, and Andrew MacGregor Marshall, all have high following on their Facebook and Twitter accounts. Anomalies such as the massive use of the judiciary and other institutions like the Election Commission to undermine opposition parties, not to mention King Vajiralongkorn’s official interventions in the constitution and the military, have led young Thais to to wonder if the criticisms 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 more than two million members despite its closure in August. Several discussions even focus on criticisms of King Bhumibol.
Members wishing to further their research on the history of the monarchy can read books and historical accounts compiled in digital form and published on the Royalists Marketplace page. Facebook and other social media platforms have features that allow people to support their arguments with digital referrals and primary sources. Accounts can reach large audiences via multiple shares and repeats, 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 commonly used to undermine the royal family’s demigod status. With millions of tweets and messages spreading such sentiments, many under false names, the application of the law of lese majesty has become unsustainable.
“We are the fate you cannot avoid”
At this time, there is no sign that a faction within the military will break its alliance with the palace to stand alongside the people and democracy, nor any sign that the palace will accept the demands. reform protesters. But in recent weeks, anti-government protests have become a national trend and increasingly decentralized. Violent repression by the security forces or even a coup d’état would be archaic solutions. Protesters have already defied an emergency decree and other repressive laws, while the use of security forces only works in limited areas and with a limited number of dissidents.
Young leaders are also up for a long game, as time and technology are on their side. With the government unable to control social media and the revisionist historical narrative becoming more prevalent, criticism and disrespect of the monarchy will continue to multiply and be passed on to subsequent generations, including those of the security forces. . As a recent protest message put it, “We are the fate 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 taught at Prince of Songkla University, Thailand.