New Generation Presses Thailand’s Military and Monarchy to Step Away From Politics

By Niharika Mandhana and Feliz Solomon

Political turmoil isn’t new in Thailand, which has been rocked by coups and periods of unrest for decades. But a new generation of Thais has taken to the streets in recent months against a system they see as dictatorial and out-of-place in the 21st century, with some questioning the very foundation of what it means to be Thai.

“When I was eight, I saw a coup d’état. When I was 12 years old, I saw the most violent crackdown in recent history. When I was 16, I saw another coup d’état,” said 22-year-old Parit Chiwarak. “As a whole generation, this really made us question the system we are living in.”

University students say their country’s top-down structure is skewed to protect the royalist-military elite and promote a culture of unquestioning submission by citizens. The protesters, led in part by a group called Free People, have articulated three core demands: that parliament be dissolved, which would lead to elections; that a new constitution be drafted with an aim to ultimately dislodge the military from politics; and that critics of the government no longer be harassed.

Their immediate target is Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, who led the latest coup in 2014 and ran a junta government for nearly five years. He became the country’s elected premier last year after a vote that was criticized by the opposition as favoring his military-backed party. The polls were marred by allegations of irregular counting and coercion.

Some protesters are going even further. They are hoping to fundamentally alter the political landscape and redefine the concept of “Thai-ness” that counts reverence for the monarchy as fundamental to Thai identity, analysts said. In interviews and recent speeches at rallies, several activists have explicitly called for changes that would curb the palace’s power and decriminalize perceived insults to the royal family.

The Thai crown is one of the world’s few-remaining monarchies to wield real influence. Thais typically avoid criticizing the palace even in conversations with colleagues or friends for fear of social opprobrium and the country’s lèse-majesté law that carries up to 15-year prison terms. After the fall of absolute monarchy in 1932, royalists spent decades cultivating a worshipful following.

But young protesters grew up in a more-globalized world, use social media to mobilize and are less influenced by state propaganda. Mr. Parit is among students who are calling for the king step away from politics, stop endorsing coups and allow royal accounts to be audited—demands seen as radical in Thailand.

The palace hasn’t commented.

Mr. Parit is facing dozens of charges related to recent demonstrations, including sedition, unlawful assembly and obstructing traffic. Last week, he and five other activists were summoned to report to police in connection with a July rally. Mr. Parit set his summons document on fire outside the police station and decried the charges as illegitimate.

Since early August, at least 29 activists have been charged with similar crimes, according to legal-aid group Thai Lawyers for Human Rights. Those who were arrested have been released on bail, the group said.

A government spokesman said students have the right to gather but need to follow the rules. The government is open to the public’s ideas for amending the constitution, spokesman Anucha Burapachaisri said.

It was in high school that Mr. Parit began thinking about democracy. He grew disenchanted with the education system that, he said, focuses on unquestioning obedience and rote learning, and joined the group Education for Liberation of Siam. Its members organized seminars and ran a Facebook page to share information about teachers and administrators who they believed acted undemocratically.

Years later, some high-schoolers are out on the streets to press the government for a more-liberal school system. They call themselves the “Bad Student” group. A banner at a recent demonstration read: “Our first dictatorship is school”—a sign, analysts said, that an even younger cohort of activists than Mr. Parit’s is rising.

Mr. Parit said he “became familiar with the concepts of liberty and equality” from reading about the French and American revolutions. The more he learned about monarchies elsewhere, the more curious he became about Thai royalty. Gaps in official accounts of palace history also piqued his interest, which he said is how he began stumbling upon information on Thai history online and in the foreign press.

“I often compare the state of our monarchy with those of Britain and Japan,” he said. “The British monarch never gives their signature to authorize a military coup d’état. The Japanese emperor doesn’t charge anyone who criticizes him; he doesn’t put them in jail for 15 years.”

Fellow democracy activist Sirin Mungcharoen, also 22, recalls that in school, she had to memorize the names of all the monarchs since the late 18th century while a student massacre by government forces in 1976 wasn’t discussed.

“It’s within our rights to question why some people like the monarchy have so much privilege, have so much power over us.”— Sirin Mungcharoen, democracy activist

As a teenager, Ms. Sirin wasn’t interested in politics. She became involved with issues of gender equality, in part because of the off-screen feminism of Emma Watson, the actor who portrays the beloved character Hermione Granger from the Harry Potter films.

Ms. Sirin said she turned to political activism because she realized no rights would be secure if Thailand stopped short of a full democracy. She supports the demands by students such as Mr. Parit for the crown’s powers to be curtailed, though some protesters say it is too soon to take on the monarchy.

A coalition of progressive activists has joined the recent demonstrations, including those campaigning for the environment, gender equality and LGBTQ rights, broadening the movement’s appeal. Organizers say turnout surpassed 10,000 people at one event in August, the largest demonstration in Thailand since before the coup in 2014. In recent weeks, small demonstrations have been an almost daily occurrence.

Social media has made it harder for the government to control the narrative, Ms. Sirin said. Officials have succeeded in getting websites such as Facebook to take down some content, including a million-member private group that was focused on the monarchy, but they can’t censor everything they don’t like, she said. (Facebook has said it is planning to legally challenge the order to block access to the group.)

“Many people are posting facts, posting information, posting data that many of us have never seen before,” she said, including reports about the royal family’s luxurious lifestyle.

The Thai palace might have faded or become a ceremonial relic after the 1932 revolution that ended absolute rule and brought in constitutional monarchy. The late King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who died in 2016, restored the throne’s prestige and power during his seven-decade reign, shaping modern Thai politics.

He was an unlikely king, born in Massachusetts to a Thai mother who didn’t come from royalty. His farm projects made him popular and he came to be seen by many Thais as a deity who, they believed, wielded his authority for order and peace. But critics say he and royalists under him maneuvered to advance palace power, made it intolerant to scrutiny and stymied democracy.

His son, the current King Maha Vajiralongkorn, isn’t viewed by many Thais as commanding the moral authority his father did. He spends much of his time overseas, making the news for actions such as stripping and restoring his consort’s royal titles—and, analysts say, deepening the disconnect with citizens.

“It’s within our rights to question why some people like the monarchy have so much privilege, have so much power over us,” Ms. Sirin said.


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