Pavin Chachavalpongpun is associate professor at Kyoto University’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies.
Three months have passed and the protests in Thailand have intensified. One of the main messages of the demonstrations has become clear—the protesters believe the monarchy is in need of immediate reform. In just three months, Thais have repeatedly stretched the boundaries of what is acceptable to discuss in public—and at large gatherings—regarding the monarchy.
Today, even in the face of harsh lèse-majesté law, Thais at the demonstrations talk openly about their monarchy, mostly in a fiercely critical way. Meanwhile, the opposition in parliament is demanding that Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha resign, though he has so far refused.
On Monday, a large group of Thai protesters demonstrated in front of the German Embassy on Sathorn Road in Bangkok. They submitted a letter requesting the German government to investigate whether King Vajiralongkorn has exercised his royal power on German soil. (This is a question that has been raised by German politicians as well, who do not want the king wielding power over Thailand from Germany.) In an even more explosive allegation, the demonstrators accused the king of playing a role in a rash of disappearances of Thai anti-royalist activists, possibly while he was living in Germany. Protesters also continue to use social media to raise questions about the monarchy and make statements about the monarchy that once were taboo.
The latest move by the protesters has made the political situation more explosive, but so too have subtle actions by the palace. The king already has played a central role in army politics. His personal appointment of the previous and current army chiefs is testament to this intimate relationship, and he also has overseen the establishment of a Royal Command Guard, with five thousand troops.
In the face of these street protests, the king has generally remained silent, taking no position vis-à-vis the call for a monarchical reform. But he also has subtly conveyed his support for a group of royalist demonstrators who also have taken to the streets to defend the palace and display their loyalty to the monarchy—and who have led to violent clashes in areas of Bangkok. Protesters as young as high school students have been attacked in some cases, such as during one incident near Ramkhamheang University.
The king has signaled his subtle support for the royalist movement to fight back. As James Buchanan of Mahidol University International College in Bangkok has noted, the king, at his palace, publicly praised a royalist supporter who had faced off with protesters, telling the supporter, “Very brave, very good, thank you.” The king also appeared to greet Buddha Issara, a controversial former monk who has been a force behind a prominent archroyalist group. Buchanan notes—and we concur—that through these messages the king is showing that he will not back down from the demonstrators, and will encourage royalists to fight back.
This signaling is a tactic borrowed from earlier periods of conflict in Thailand. During Thailand’s 2010 protests and, ultimately, the harsh crackdown on them, then-Queen Sirikit (now Queen Mother Sirikit) and then–Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn made televised, highly-publicized visits to dead and injured soldiers who had been combating protesters. In this way, they clearly showed their support for the police and the army, and also for royalist supporters, some of whom were egging on violence.
The king seems to have recent history on his side as well, and the protesters do not. As Larry Diamond shows in a fascinating new article in Democratization, in recent years most protest movements in developing states have failed.
In Thai history, the combination of protesters and counter-protesters has often led to bloody clashes and, ultimately a military coup, under the pretext of restoring order, after pro-royalist counter-protesters try to provoke chaos. Although the current Thai government is packed with military men and was midwifed by constitutional changes created by a junta that lasted from 2014 to 2019, the idea of launching a coup against what is a de facto military-installed government is hardly out of the question, given Thailand’s history of coups. Some reports, like a recent article in the Economist, demonstrate how the king is already pushing the monarchy closer to a restoration of absolute monarchy, and a new coup could lead to a more clear proclamation of absolute monarchy. At the least, the continued demands by the protesters, increasingly touching on once-taboo areas of the monarchy, may eventually provoke a harsh reaction.