Anti-Monarchy Sentiment Grows in Thailand

Recently, two unnamed red-shirted key figures gave a bare-all interview to Singapore's Straits Times, in which they asserted that anti-monarchy sentiment in Thailand has significantly grown, and that up to 90 per cent of the red shirts may now be anti-monarchists no longer interested in a peaceful struggle for democracy.

Undoubtedly, the content of the interview has served to reaffirm the state's claim of the existence of the anti-monarchy faction within the red shirts. So far, none from the red-shirted camp has come out to refute the allegation, although perhaps because most of the core leaders are now under detention.

The revelations also serve to further legitimize the hard-nosed policy of the Thai national security agencies against the so-called red-shirted anti-monarchists. Already, the Thai Army's Commander-in-Chief Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha has insisted that his top priority was to protect the monarchy. Gen. Prayuth's stance was well reciprocated by the National Policy Chief Pol. Gen.Wichean Potephosree who vowed to personally crack down on anti-monarchist elements.

The claim that the majority of the red-shirts are now adopting an anti-monarchy attitude is highly questionable, since it is obviously not possible to prove it. A more crucial question is whether cracking down on the anti-monarchy elements, either through harsh legal procedures or stiff social measures, is the most effective means, especially if the state's ultimate objective is to reconcile with its opponents.

If the key word here is reconciliation, then retribution should be avoided. If the Thai national security agencies seriously want to eliminate the anti-monarchist elements, the best approach is to fight with them within the democratic framework.

More than 30 years ago, in confronting with the communists, also perceived as a threat to the very core of the Thai nation—the monarchy, the state allowed them to return to society and live normal lives without obliging them to abandon their belief through radical means. External factors also played a role here: communism as a once leading global ideology was declining. Communism was at the end unable to resist the change of the global system.

Today, the face of the enemy may have changed from the communists to the anti-monarchists, and the political context may be starkly different. But the pattern of struggle has remained relatively unaltered. These actors have wanted a political space in which to express their non-conventional thoughts. But because of their non-conventional position, they have been written off as a threat to society. Such labelling automatically excludes them from being acceptable members of society, thus preventing them from maintaining their convictions legitimately.

The labelling process is unending. And while it may be used to justify certain policies on the part of the government, it also has the potential to create a wider ideological rift in society. Being condemned and alienated from society, the anti-monarchists could become more adamant in their actions. Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva once alleged an anti-monarchist plot among the red-shirts. His confirmation gave a green light to security agencies to employ every possible instrument to hunt down those suspected of having republican leanings.

Eliminating the anti-monarchists will not lead to a political solution, nor particularly a better democracy. The crux of the problem indeed rests on the issue of democracy and justice. To the opposition, Thai society has grown more undemocratic and unjust. Anyone who possesses beliefs different from those of the state becomes a criminal in his or her own society. Worse, there is no room for the opposition to defend their position, either in public or in court.

There has always been a danger in knitting so tightly the notion of the threat to national security and the anti-monarchist movement. Most Thais still love and respect the monarch; only a minority may endorse an anti-monarchy agenda for various personal reasons. Accordingly, it is unnecessary for the Thai state to keep inflating the situation.

Or perhaps there is a clear political benefit in that attempt. Lèse-majesté cases are not uncommon nowadays. They have been arbitrarily used to undermine political opponents. Those who apply this law against the anti-monarchists have claimed to work within the legal context. But how can Thais be sure that existing legal instruments will not be politicised by certain influential members in society?

In my recent interview with a former executive member of the disbanded Thai Rak Thai Party, I was told that 35 to 55 percent of the red-shirted members are in support of the movement's pro-democracy activities both in the parliament and on the streets. They are also aware of the anti-monarchists who are trying to infiltrate the movement. The challenge is to separate themselves from such radical elements. Failing to do so, they are at risk of being collectively painted simply as a threat to the Thai nation.

The risk is grave since there is no clear definition of what constitutes anti-monarchy. Is a general debate on the monarchy considered a breach of a lèse-majesté law? In the meantime, could banning it be regarded as an obstruction to freedom of expression? The balance has to be made, bearing in mind the need to prove that the royal institution is compatible with democracy.

In reality, while the national security agencies are clear about their mission to purge the anti-monarchists, the reason behind their mission has remained ambiguous. For the sake of justice and democracy, they will need to open up a space for those who entertain the anti-monarchy outlook to clarify their position, or even defend their belief.

Despite the current political crisis, Thailand has come a long way since the abolition of the absolute monarchy in 1932, and is now experimenting a new phase of democratic struggle. In this context, it will be increasingly impossible for the state to coerce the change in the people's political thinking; just like it cannot force the yellows to become reds and vice-versa. The solution lies on the state's ability to co-exist with non-conformists and to recreate a society which respects diversities and differences.

Pavin Chachavalpongpun is a Fellow at Singapore's Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.