In March, this year a popular pro-democracy party was dissolved by the incumbent government, and protests have been happening in Bangkok since then. The protestors have called for the dissolution of the government and scrapping the current constitution that was installed by the government after it came to power via a coup. Further complicating matters, the current Thai King, Vajiralongkorn, has been a supporter of the current government. In his short reign thus far, he has amassed great political power that is analogous to an absolute monarch. As such these demands have been expanded to reducing the power of the royal family as well.
This criticism of the royal family is highly unusual. Loyalty and love of the royal family is a taught cultural value, and there are significant social taboos for criticism of the king. To complement these cultural controls, Thailand has among the strictest lese majeste laws in the world. According to section 112 of Thailand’s penal code, offenses against the crown can result in up to 15 years imprisonment.
In response to these protests, there has only been an increase in state efforts to suppress this discontent. At first, it was an increased police presence to monitor the protests since then these measures have only escalated to prohibiting mass gatherings, arrests of protesters, and using high-pressure water cannons to physically disperse crowds. This has only served to galvanize the protesters and strengthen their demands for dilution of monarchical powers and the end of a corrupt government.
Thailand has a fraught relationship with democracy. In 1932 the absolute monarchy was disbanded in via military coup. This would set a trend of political instability that has been a present theme throughout the course of Thai politics. Since then Thailand has experienced 13 military-backed coups, the latest of which occurred in 2014. The current Prime Minister, Prayut Chan-o-cha, orchestrated this coup. A pernicious tool employed by Chan-o-cha in the early years his regime, the lese majeste laws were used to bludgeon his critics into silence. He has retained his place as head of state after being re-elected in the 2019 election. Although the legitimacy of this election has been questioned by many and is a central complaint of the protests.
Throughout this history of rapidly changing governments, the position of the king has been traditionally thought of as an agent of stability by the Thai people. This idea of the king as a political through-line is best to emphasize in the life and career of the previous king Bhumibol Adulyadej who reigned from 1946 to 2016. He spent his time as king cultivating a relationship with the working class and using his royal privileges to benefit the people. Furthermore, Bhumibol adhered to cultural expectations of the position because the king is the patron of Buddhism. Vajiralongkorn in contrast has been unable to cultivate a similar following around himself as he has spent much of his reign as king outside of Thailand. The comparison between the two kings is stark, where Bhumibol weathered multiple political crises during his reign, Vajiralongkorn has ruled from Europe, and currently resides in a German hotel with his harem.
The political situation in Thailand is complicated and cannot be reduced to a single variable. This outpour of political protest is symptomatic of deep systematic inequality and corruption that has faced no recourse. As the demands of the protester continue upset the status quo in Thailand and call for the democratisation of the country, the government is only escalating measures to suppress the protest. The protesters have sought international attention to support their plight for democracy by adopting the three-fingered salute from the Hunger Games series. International criticism will help hold the status quo powers to account and help to push the cause for democratisation from demand to practice.