Thailand has seen steady and consistently strident protests led by the youth of the country since mid-July 2020. Consisting mainly of students and political activists, the protests grew to be one of the largest the country has seen since 2014. Starting in February 2020, after the pro-democracy opposition Future Forward party was dissolved on charges of violating the 2019 election laws, these initial protests died down as a result of Covid 19 pandemic forcing people indoors. The Future Forward party was dissolved for taking an illegal loan from its founder Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit.
The protests began to gain momentum from mid July 2020, gathering more traction during the weekend of 15-16 August, when nearly ten thousand protestors gathered at the famous Democracy Monument which was the scene of the 1992 pro-democracy protests. The 1992 democratic transition ended the military government which had been in place for six decades since 1932. This phase lasted for a period of fourteen years till the 2006 coup d’etat that brought the military and pro-military political groups back to power.
This time round the demands made by the protestors are critically linked to three core areas; first, they have called for an end to the government led by Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, especially an end to the type of “dictatorship” that has been prevalent in Thailand since the coup d’etat led by Prayut Chan-o-cha in 2014. Chan-o-cha has been seen as both a royalist and loyalist to the military remaining at the helm of affairs in Thailand. In the elections last year Prayut Chan-o-cha was the Prime Ministerial candidate with the backing of the Palang Pracharat party. Protestors demanded that fresh elections should be held, thereby dissolving the current parliament which came into power in July 2019.
Second and more significant demand is the issue of constitutional change. Protestors have been demanding the Constitution must reflect a people oriented democracy that is a ‘bottom up’ process rather than a case of a ‘top down’ approach model of democratic change that leaves popular participation out of the process. Specifically this demand targeted the legitimization of the political culture of military coups that are a reality in Thailand. The Thai Constitution that was implemented in 2017 after a referendum was drafted by the under the helm of the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), a name given to the Thai military junta that carried out the 2014 coup d’etat, which remained in power till 2019. Following this coup the earlier Constitution of 2007 was repealed and in its place an interim constitution was approved by the late King Bhumibol Adyuladej which remained in place till the 2017 Constitution was implemented. One of the interesting features of the 2014 interim constitution was that it did not undermine the democratic nature of the Thai state. However, the Constitution provided for certain leniency when it came to members of the military. It allowed for those involved in military coups to be pardoned, legitimizing the political culture of repeated coups in Thailand. Currently the 2017 Constitution is in place, which has provisions for the appointment of a panel that can choose the Senators and also allows for the appointment of members of the Thai military and armed forces to be part of the parliament. This provision ensures that the military remains one of the most consolidated groups within the parliament, ensuring the military’s role in maintenance of political order. Moreover the Constitution also endorses greater powers for the Monarch.
The late King Bhumibol Adulyadej was deeply respected and revered by the Thai people, with almost a divine status. The respect he garnered from his people was poignantly visible in the aftermath of his passing in 2016. In what has often been referred to as Thailand’s “network monarchy”, the King played a critical role in the political outcomes especially as the sagacious voice of leadership. The deeply respected monarch was able to knit together coalitions and sustain the political processes that have been in place with diverse groups coming together under his wisdom.
In comparison, the current King Maha Vajiralongkorn is not perceived as one who has the deep understanding of his people. There is a dichotomy to the manner in which the current King is viewed. Following his coronation King Maha Vajiralongkorn has consolidated his political power in several ways. In October 2019 he placed two army units under his control through the promulgation of a royal decree. Within the military there exists factionalism and the King has succeeded in giving greater powers to the faction that supports the royalty. He has also expanded his financial powers, especially by bringing the Crown Property Bureau which is estimated to be worth US $ 30 billion, under his personal control, leading to criticism. However, he is also seen as more modern in some senses as he has not allowed the “lese majeste” laws to be used randomly. These laws prohibit any kind of criticism or censure of the monarch. So the contradictions in his functioning are also critical in assessing these political tensions.
Third, in recent years the abduction and killing of Thai dissident leaders living outside the country has increased, with protestors calling for an investigation into these killings. As the political shifts take place the role of the dissident politicians, especially those outside the country will be critical. But the spate of murders has sparked a huge controversy on the Thai political landscape. As the Thai economy is already in shock due to the impact of COVID-19, the political tensions are adding a more strident dimension to the existing woes.
Professor Shankari Sundararaman is Professor of Southeast Asian Studies, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.