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The Unraveling of Thailand’s National Myth

Young Thais are finding power in each other—and their demands could transform Southeast Asia.

By Wilfred ChanTwitter

October 28, 2020

A pro-democracy protester speaks during an anti-government rally in Bangkok on October 19, 2020.(Mladen Antonov / AFP via Getty Images)

When the uprising came, 27-year-old pro-democracy activist Chonthicha “Lookkate” Jangrew was ecstatic. She found herself on the streets of Bangkok last week surrounded by tens of thousands of young protesters in hard hats and masks, giving the three-fingered Hunger Games salute that has become a symbol of Thailand’s anti-authoritarian resistance. They were using social media and messaging apps to appear at landmarks and then vanish, a step ahead of the bewildered police. Most strikingly, they were chanting slogans against the Thai king himself—crossing a line that no prior generation of protesters had dared. After years of pain and hopelessness, Chonthicha felt an awakening had finally arrived: “I never thought it was going to happen.”

A revolution is never truly spontaneous. It’s the moment a community is finally able to recognize itself in a way that was previously impossible. For Thailand’s protesters, there is urgency to act before this moment is gone. The nation’s new monarch is hated. Its military ruler clings to control, remaking the law in his own favor. Their collusion with the country’s oligarchs has opened up a record wealth gap, and their deepening ties with China foreshadow a new era of violent repression. With their options running out, young Thais are finding power in each other—and their demands could transform Southeast Asia.

Chonthicha’s own rebellion began, as it does for so many young activists, at home: in her case, against her father, a domineering military cop. “I didn’t see any future for myself, anything I could do in Thailand,” she said. It was in May 2014, right before her university graduation, when General Prayuth Chan-ocha seized control of the government in a coup d’état—the country’s 13th military takeover in less than a century—that she realized Thailand’s culture of authority was connected to her own life. “My family controlled me already. Now the country wanted to control my future, too. This is what I could not accept.”

She soon joined a handful of students to protest Prayuth’s regime, initially by silently eating sandwiches while reading George Orwell’s 1984. She went on to cofound the Democracy Restoration Group, a collective of student demonstrators determined to resist autocratic rule. In 2015, she was arrested for sedition, and still faces 11 criminal charges for her activism, which could land her in prison for up to 28 years. Since then she has received death threats, and regular harassment at home from soldiers. “This is the price we have to pay to win the battle,” she told me.

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Thai activists have long struggled to break free from overlapping forms of state authority. Even after 1932, when a group of officials called the Khana Rhatsadon (People’s Party) stormed the royal palace and forced the king—who then held absolute power—to declare a constitutional monarchy, Thailand never had a genuine democracy. For decades, power has been traded between Thailand’s military establishment and civilian oligarchs in an intermittently functioning electoral system, upon which the king has final say. Thailand’s harsh lèse majesté legislation forbids any criticism of the monarch, and the palace-backed military has used these laws to crush dissent. Prayuth’s government has sentenced Thais to lengthy prison sentences for everything from text messages to Facebook posts deemed critical of the king. Prayuth has warned current protesters that their demands to reform the monarchy have “gone too far,” and ominously told a reporter, “Do not trifle with the powerful Grim Reaper. Death may come today, or another day. Everyone can die at any moment.”

But the story of how the Thai monarch avoided serious challenge for decades cannot be explained by fear alone. The previous king, Bhumipol Adulyadej, took power in 1946 and ruled for 70 years, elevating himself into the nation’s benevolent protector—and for many, a deity-like figure. Bhumipol took well-publicized trips to Thailand’s impoverished countryside, where he would share meals with villagers, then announce projects to improve their living and working conditions. He donated money to fight outbreaks of disease, and once fundraised to fight a cholera outbreak by playing the saxophone. Otherwise, he insisted on a disdain for politics, claiming in a rare interview, “We keep in the middle, neutral, in peaceful coexistence with everybody.”

Behind the scenes, however, Bhumipol wielded far-reaching power, operating through webs of loyal elites who could do his bidding in public while shielding him from explicit responsibility. During his reign the palace accumulated an estimated $30 billion in an opaque, non-taxable royal fund. His substantial holdings in real estate, finance, and industry effectively made him the country’s biggest landlord and the chief executive of the largest corporate group. And in return for the king’s blessing, the military provided the muscle for his royal designs. Bhumipol was also backed by the United States, which saw the Massachusetts-born ruler as a reliable, savvy Cold War partner able to stave off insurgent communist movements and gladly funded a propaganda campaign in support of his rule.

At every juncture, the king was the final arbiter: By the time he died in 2016, he had personally signed off on 10 military coups and even more constitutions, cementing himself as Thailand’s sole constant through decades of political turmoil.

In especially bitter conflicts, Bhumipol would step in and provide a dramatic resolution. In 1973, his palace shielded leftist student protesters from being fired upon by the military; the next day, the king ended the crisis by announcing that the country’s right-wing military dictator, Thanom Kittikachorn, would be exiled. (Three years later, he would invite Thanom back to retake power in a bloody coup). In 1992, after deadly clashes between pro-democracy activists and Thai armed forces, the king summoned the leaders of the two camps to crawl before him on a televised broadcast, chiding them: “The nation belongs to everyone, not one or two specific people. The problems exist because we don’t talk to each other and resolve them together.”

Thai royalists say Bhumipol’s rule unified Thailand, protecting it from the devastating 20th century civil wars of its neighbors Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. But critical scholars argue Bhumipol’s interventions suppressed Thailand’s democratic development, because ultimately it was not the people who held their leaders to account.

In 2001, Thaksin Shinawatra, a telecom billionaire, was elected prime minister with the support of rural Thais who favored his pro-farmer policies. But Thaksin and his working-class followers raised the ire of Thailand’s urban royalist elites, who believed Thaksin was cultivating a power base that could upend the national order. Like many stories in Thai politics, the truth of what happened next is impossible to know: Thaksin denies seeking to challenge the king’s power; likewise the king denies ordering Thaksin’s removal. But in 2006, shortly after Thaksin became the first Thai to be democratically re-elected prime minister, the military removed him in a coup, charging him with corruption and prompting what would become more than a decade of color-coded clashes between his red shirt-wearing supporters and the yellow shirt devotees to the royal-military establishment. Three years after Thaksin’s younger sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, was elected prime minister in 2011, Prayuth’s military removed her from power, too. That sparked a new generation of resistance by Thais who believe democracy itself is in peril.

Unlike after previous coups, Prayuth did not promise a quick return to civilian rule; instead, he delayed elections to shore up the military’s power amid the impending transition of the throne. In 2017, after the coronation of Bhumipol’s 68-year-old son, Maha Vajiralongkorn, Prayuth rewrote the Constitution to tilt the electoral system in his favor, replacing the country’s partially elected Senate with one appointed by the military. He gerrymandered electoral districts and set up legal barriers for opposition parties to organize. In 2018, he passed a National Strategy Act, a legally binding 20-year plan that seeks to preserve the military’s role. And he continues a campaign of terror against political dissidents, who have gone missing or turned up dead.

Amid Prayuth’s political consolidation, Thailand’s economic inequality has deepened. Rather than increase spending on social services, which amount to less than a tenth of Thailand’s GDP, Prayuth’s so-called Pracharath scheme, or “people’s state,” mostly benefited the “Five Families” of Sino-Thai conglomerates that monopolize many of the country’s industries. In turn, the oligarchic class poured money into Prayuth’s election campaign. Simultaneously, Prayuth pivoted to China, pledging support for Chinese dams on the Mekong River that have dried up the crucial water source for Thai villagers and fishermen downstream. In 2019 China became Thailand’s top source of foreign capital, throwing its support behind Prayuth’s authoritarian rule.

The most important source of power behind Prayuth remains the throne—but the new king commands little respect. Vajiralongkorn has filled tabloids for years with embarrassing headlines about his lavish habits in Germany, where he has resided with wives, consorts, and servants on the royal purse, and flaunted his love of crop tops. A licensed pilot, he is said to own 38 planes, including fighter jets and commercial airliners; he once made his poodle, Foo Foo, a senior air marshal. To continue his lifestyle as king, he has brazenly expanded the royal prerogative to his own benefit, with Prayuth as accomplice. In 2017, the military government changed the constitution to allow Vajiralongkorn to rule from abroad without appointing a regent. In 2018, the king took the crown’s massive fund under his personal control, making him one of the richest men in the world. He has brought two army units under his personal command.

The excesses of Thailand’s unaccountable ruling class have never been more glaring. It is no longer red shirts or yellow shirts who are incensed but young people, who feel little attachment to the old power structures. When Prayuth finally called a general election last year, the establishment was stunned that an upstart progressive party called Future Forward grabbed 81 out of Thailand’s 500 parliamentary seats on a surge of youth support. The party’s leader was Thanatorn Juangroongruangkit, a charismatic 40-year-old auto executive turned vocal critic of Thailand’s military and corporate oligarchy. The new MPs included 28-year-old Rangsiman Rome, a former student activist who had organized with Chonthicha against the 2014 coup and brought her onto his staff. “After the elections, so many things changed,” Chonthicha said. “The Future Forward Party gave us a lot of hope.”

But it was not to last: Immediately after getting sworn in, Thanatorn was disqualified from office for an alleged illegal donation that he made to his own campaign. In February this year, the military-controlled Constitutional Court ordered Future Forward to disband altogether. Rangsiman and Chonthicha discovered their legislative work stymied by the government, who have blocked their attempts to investigate human rights violations. “We cannot do anything,” she said. “That’s why young people have decided to go out onto the street.”

A brief surge in protests following Future Forward’s ban was quelled over the summer when Covid-19 hit—but the pandemic only made the pressure build. Jasmine Chia, a journalist for the Thai Enquirer, told me that the virus revealed the scale of the country’s inequality: “You had all these young people who were informally employed, who now had no recourse. You had this huge tourism sector that had been growing because the government hadn’t input in any plan to grow domestically oriented sectors—now suddenly hung out to dry. And finally, you have these wealthy elites amassing even more wealth during this time. Covid laid bare what a lot of people had known, but was suddenly, shockingly, visible.”

In July, the dam finally broke when Wanchalearm Satsaksit, an outspoken pro-democracy and queer rights activist in self-imposed exile in Cambodia, was “disappeared” and suspected to have been murdered for his criticism of the government. In immediate response, a coalition of student activists called Free Youth drew thousands of angry demonstrators to Bangkok, listing three demands: dissolve the parliament, rewrite the constitution, and stop harassing critics of the regime.

Then, at a protest in August, human rights lawyer Anon Nampa did what had been almost unthinkable under Bhumipol: publicly call for reforming the monarchy. Days later, a 22-year-old activist named Panusaya “Roong” Sithijirawattanakul read out a 10-point manifesto that called for slashing the monarchy’s budget, auditing its finances, and banning the king from political participation. She knew the risk she was taking: “If I have to die—I’m prepared for anything,” she told a journalist. Both Aron and Roong have since been arrested.

The revolutionary spirit spread rapidly. In September, protesters, including Chonthicha, installed a plaque declaring themselves the new Khana Ratsadon—a nod to the People’s Party that founded Thailand’s constitutional monarchy—though it was removed the next day. Future Forward’s Thanatorn called for an investigation into the king’s finances, saying that he was prepared to suffer any consequences for speaking out as well.

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Then protesters crossed paths with the monarchy itself. On October 14—as demonstrators gathered on Bangkok’s streets to mark the anniversary of Thailand’s 1973 student uprising—they were suddenly faced with the Thai Queen’s motorcade as it took an unexpected route through the protest. Activists heckled the passing car before the police tackled them. Some of those arrested now face decades in prison for supposedly endangering the queen. Yet they have refused to apologize.

The Thai military appears increasingly desperate. It has adopted tactics that are familiar to protesters in Hong Kong: an “emergency” law to ban gatherings, followed by tear gas, pepper spray, and blasts from water cannons marked with toxic blue dye. It has rounded up protest leaders, attempted to ban the Telegram messaging app, and charged critical news outlets with committing “computer crimes.” But protesters are adapting, borrowing the “Be Water” ethos from Hong Kong’s mass movement. “We learned the lesson that every time we have a leader, our leader gets charged, with cases brought against them,” said Chonthicha. “Now the protest is organic, leaderless. When we looked at Hong Kong, we saw how it could be possible.”

Online, international solidarity is building under the hashtag “Milk Tea Alliance”—a cheeky reference to Thai, Hong Kong, and Taiwanese people’s shared love for the sweet beverage, while pointing to their mutual struggles against authoritarianism. Chia told me this solidarity is important because “Thailand has never existed in a purely global international system. To Thailand, the question is, who are the regional hegemons? From the perspective of Southeast Asia, there is a new regional hegemon, and that is China. It’s important to emphasize how much this feeling of wanting to resist this regional hegemon—one that has worked so closely with Thailand’s military government—has informed this protest as well.”

Netiwit Chotiphatphaisal, a Thai activist who calls Hong Kong’s Joshua Wong a personal friend, said the alliance could even become a Southeast Asian movement, as more young people realize their common cause. “An ‘ASEAN Spring’ for me is possible,” he told me, referring to the 10-member states of the Southeast Asian international organization. “Laos might be the next one, though it is difficult. I think Cambodia, which is close to Thailand both in culture and potential oppositional forces, might also be in consideration.”

Ultimately, Chia believes Thailand’s uprising is a reflection of a new generation’s “unstoppable anger” against all forms of hierarchy. “It’s a reaction to Thai identity’s framing: that your goodness revolves around the nation, religion, and the monarchy,” she said. “It’s about not wanting to be locked into a particular version of history. Not wanting to chant the national anthem in front of your school. It’s the unraveling of a national myth.”

Last Wednesday, protesters marched to Bangkok’s Government House and gave Prayuth a three-day deadline to resign. The prime minister has refused, instead calling for the crisis to be resolved within the parliament he largely controls. Chonthicha believes he is lying: “He said the government will step back and try to solve the conflict. But authorities are still using the law as a tool against activists. Many of us have been prosecuted and have warrants for our arrest from the recent protests.”

Either way, she said, the cause cannot be so easily slowed. “If tomorrow they don’t have me, if tomorrow I go to prison, it doesn’t matter—because the people can run the movement by themselves.”

Wilfred ChanTwitterWilfred Chan is a contributing writer to The Nation. He was previously a journalist based in Hong Kong.


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