Pavin Chachavalpongpun is associate professor at Kyoto University’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies.
After weeks of reformist protests in Bangkok and other parts of the country, Thailand’s demonstrators, who initially focused on a broad range of issues including investigations of disappeared Thai activists and constitutional reform, have come to focus more intently on reforming the monarchy, a longstanding taboo in the kingdom. Last weekend’s protest, which took place on September 19 and 20, was organized in part to remember the coup of September 19, 2006 that overthrew the elected government.
However, the demonstrations, which reportedly drew as many as thirty thousand people, making them the largest in Thailand since the 2014 coup, were clearly not primarily to commemorate 2006: They were focused on the present day. And while the protestors did still make a range of demands, including rewriting the constitution and asking the current government, midwifed by the 2014 coup-makers, to step down, they also called for immediate reform of the monarchy. On Saturday, in a highly unusual event in Thailand, protestors openly spoke about the climate of fear surrounding discussions of the monarchy, discussed the disappearances in exile of critics of the royal palace, and called for change.
Indeed, the demand for immediate monarchical reform is now an official objective of the protesters, and more and more demonstrators have spoken up about the monarchy. Given the immense power of the monarchy, built partly upon its intricate ties with the military but also on decades of laws protecting the palace and on links between the palace and many prominent Thai businesses, such an objective is indeed an arduous task. It also probably is quite dangerous.
For now, some demonstrators are simply trying to end limits on discussion about the monarchy, which is somewhat still protected under lèse-majesté laws—though they also clearly want the monarchy to operate under real, constitutional limits. Open discussions like those on Saturday night are designed to break down taboos. And on Sunday, the student leaders of the protests launched a ceremony, embedding a new plaque onto the surface of Sanam Luang, near the Grand Palace. The original plaque that had been there was made by the People’s Party, a group that abolished the absolute monarchy in what was then Siam in 1932. But that older plaque mysteriously vanished in 2017. So, the new plaque was designed to symbolize a reclamation of popular political rights. “At this place, the people have expressed their will that this country belongs to the people and is not the property of the monarchy, as they have deceived us,” the plaque read. By the next morning, the plaque was missing.
Initially the student leaders also planned to move the crowd to the Government House to hand over a letter with demands for monarchical reform. But they instead decided to pass on the letter to General Surayud Chulanond, president of the Privy Council, an advisory body to the king. Surayud, a former prime minister, was trusted by the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej, and is an important ally of the monarchy. The showdown took place in front of the Privy Council Office. For a brief moment, many feared that it could lead to violent confrontation. Eventually, a high-ranking police officer, as a representative, agreed to take the letter from a protest leader to deliver to Surayud.
Where will the protest movement go from here? Parit Chiwarak, a leader of the demonstrations, called for another protest on October 14; this time the date coincides with the massacre of students from Thammasat University in 1973. Other protest leaders have suggested calling a demonstration for September 24, Meanwhile, Parit suggested a number of efforts designed to diminish the royal symbols in everyday life in Thailand. For example, he suggested that people raise three fingers, the Hunger Games symbol that has caught on in Thailand as a symbol of protest, every time they listen to the national anthem, or blow their horns when they are stuck in the traffic because of the royal motorcade, or withdraw money from Siam Commercial Bank, of which King Maha Vajiralongkorn is the largest shareholder. Parit told demonstrators, “Get all your money out [of Siam Commercial Bank] and burn your bank book.”
It is true that publicly demanding reform of the monarchy is an impressive achievement in itself, given the taboo nature of the topic and potential harsh penalties for criticism of the monarchy. The demonstrations have led to rising awareness of the politicization of the monarchy. Yet, the long-term consequences of this political activism are still unknown. It is clear that the demonstrations will continue in the coming months; there is no sign that they are winding down. But there will likely be a harsh response. Many demonstrators already have been charged with sedition. And in the past, prolonged demonstrations that touched on the monarchy were met with deadly force.