Hyper-Royalists Infect Thai Society

Following the May 22 coup in Thailand, as the political crisis has deepened, so has the degree of hyper-royalism, which has proliferated out of control. This time, the battlefield is no longer confined within the Thai borders. Thai hyper-royalism has gone global.

An example of this in fascinating microcosm involves an anti-monarchist named Chatwadee ‘Rose’ Amornpat, a London-based hairdresser, who for months has been in open war with the Thai royal family. Born a Thai, Rose settled in England, marrying and giving birth to two children. She later separated from her husband and moved out of their shared house. Recently she has become a YouTube sensation by posting numerous video clips blaspheming the much-revered monarchy. Her action has outraged royalists.

Many have condemned Rose for attacking the monarchy on a personal level, employing extremely vile language to reflect her radical anti-monarchic attitude. But Rose has done something beyond anyone’s imagination—violating the most guarded Thai taboo of cursing the monarchy. She has broken all the barriers when it comes to speaking out. Rose has set a new standard, for good or bad.

Because she is now a British citizen, Rose has also challenged the draconian lèse-majesté law which states that defamatory or insulting comments about the king, queen, heir apparent and officers of the royal court incur three to 15 years in jail. Obviously, Rose has violated the law and is now being hunted by the junta, which instructed the Thai Foreign Ministry to seek cooperation from the British government to extradite Rose to Thailand. But because the UK has no lèse-majesté law, Rose will not be deported.

After legal means became futile, hyper-royalists apparently decided to take the matter into their hands. Last week a Thai woman named Kae Kanyarat arrived at Rose’s residence with a dozen eggs. She rang the bell several times, but nobody answered the front door. Rose was nowhere to be seen. The woman then began to shout loudly, knocking at the doors of Rose’s neighbors as well, asking about her whereabouts. When the neighbors did not cooperate, she threw eggs at them before taking off in her vehicle, apparently with a British friend as the driver.

A few days later, a young Thai known as DJ Ken also turned up at Rose’s home, vandalizing the front door by painting a Thai flag on it and flashing a supposed fake gun in an apparent attempt to threaten the woman. In both cases, the assailants filmed their own acts and posted them online. The video clips have gone viral. Rose announced that she would file complaints with the British police. Back in Bangkok, hyper-royalists offered their moral support to the “brave” two Thais who harassed Rose. They became national heroes.

For several years, hyper-royalism has emerged as a dominant ideology designed to identify potential enemies of the monarchy and give the practitioners the legitimacy to punish them. This has built a protective wall around the monarchy, encapsulated within the concept of the monarchy being the most sacred, untouchable and inviolable institution in a country where democratic institutions have been treated with disdain.

The need to defend the monarchy at all cost has come to rule the Thai consciousness. Those who fail to display love and respect, let alone insult it, will be hit with stiff social sanctions and prosecution. As the end of the current reign nears, with King Bhumibol Adulyadej increasingly frail, royalists have become anxious about the uncertainty ahead. After more than six decades of the king’s rule, Thailand is now confronting a new reality in which the future of the monarchy will face numerous challenges. This sense of extreme anxiety has resulted in the proliferation of hyper-royalism.

This unhealthy phenomenon has taken root and proliferated everywhere – in politics, the media and throughout society. There is no space for non-royalists today, either in Thailand or even in foreign lands, as Rose can attest. Many hyper-royalists would be willing to expel their fellow Thais to leave the country should they not express their love for the King.

Such a discourse, of a country exclusively for monarchists, has become popular and authoritative. It is repeatedly referred to by defenders of the monarchy to justify their actions and policies against their opponents, even when those actions and policies are incompatible with democratic principles.

Army Chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha, the leader of the coup, has meanwhile continued to exploit the monarchy to justify his intervention in politics. Using lèse-majesté as a weapon, he has instructed the army to arrest critics of the coup and possibly charge them with lèse-majesté. A climate of fear has been created.

The social alienation of those with different political opinions and attitudes has indeed divorced the King from his a growing number of his subjects and intensified a sense of resentment which now represents a source of anti-monarchy sentiment both domestically and among Thais living overseas. Since the coup of 2006, the debate over whether the monarchy should readjust itself for the sake of its own survival in a new climate of political openness has become more vigorous as well as divisive.

Some hyper-royalists never hide their aspiration to take Thailand back to the old days under absolute monarchy, as Sondhi Limthongkul, a core leader of the People’s Alliance for Democracy, which worked furiously worked to bring down elected governments, famously said: “Let’s return power to the King. His Majesty is a Dhammaraja King. This is the only way we can prevent Thailand from falling into becoming a failed state.”

But in another reality in rural areas, most residents who lent their support to both former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and the Red Shirts have become more aware of the political involvement of the monarchy. Rose is an example of how forced affection of the monarchy has failed. Monarchists are the ones breeding anti-monarchists in Thailand.

Pavin Chachavalpongpun is associate professor at Kyoto University’s Centre for Southeast Asian Studies. A warrant has been filed by the Thai government for his arrest.