Weeks of demonstrations in Thailand have now spread across the country. They continued over the weekend even as the authorities have arrested multiple protest leaders, issued an emergency decree banning gatherings of more than five people publicly, begun to crack down on independent media outlets, and started to disperse protests with more aggressive measures like water cannons and tear gas. Indeed, defying the ban, some ten thousand people gathered in Bangkok to protest last Sunday, calling for democratic reforms and, increasingly, for discussion of the monarchy and monarchical reforms.
The protests often were jubilant, and Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha publicly mooted the idea of holding an emergency session of parliament to resolve tensions and end the crisis in the streets. Notably, however, Prayuth also has warned that the government would protect the monarchy, cautioned demonstrators “to be extra careful,” and overseen a stepped-up use of flagging messages on social media that could violate the draconian Computer Crimes Act. In recent days, he also has approved a ratcheting up of arrests, media crackdowns, and other tools of intimidation.
Bluntly, the military—which midwifed the current Thai government—and the Thai monarchy simply cannot allow any real monarchical reform and also still retain the political powers they have amassed over decades. Such reform, if it made Thailand a truly constitutional and transparent monarchy, would badly damage the power of the king, and the power of the military that has as a primary objective upholding the monarchy. And while the public discussion of the monarchy by the protesters is new, Thailand has had multiple episodes in the past—2010, 1992, 1976, 1973—of the armed forces allowing reform-minded demonstrations to build up in the capital or parts of the capital, before cracking down with brutal force. A harsh crackdown is a very strong possibility now.
Already, there are ominous signs. In recent years, Thai dissidents critical of the monarchy have disappeared in neighboring countries, a sign of the serious consequences for those pushing for monarchical change. Generals around Prayuth are, if anything, more hardline and more royalist than Prayuth himself, and would likely be more willing than the prime minister—who is hardly a dove—to push for harsh action if the protests continued and more directly target the monarchy. In fact, Prayuth’s position within the government has only weakened as the protests have gone on, making Deputy Prime Minister (and hard-liner) Prawit Wongsuwan more powerful.
The government could respond to divisions within it by trying to calm tensions and using the parliamentary session to broker peace in the streets and made at least cosmetic attempts to answer the protesters’ grievances. But Prawit’s hardline history suggests that taking a calming approach is not his normal style. The emergency decree, like past emergency decrees, provides a legal authority for a harsher, potentially bloody crackdown.
The king himself, meanwhile, as Pavin Chachavalpongpun has noted, has not said anything about the protests or made gestures that he wants to foster peace and offer an olive branch to the demonstrators. Had he wanted to signal a moderate approach to the demonstrations, he easily could have done so already; his father, in 1973 and 1992, gave clear signals that he wanted to defuse the crises, and indeed helped do so. No such signals have come from the current king.