Ominous Overtones in Growing Thailand Protest

Hundreds of thousands of protesters dare a brutal crackdown

After six years of frustration over lackluster, deeply corrupt military government following a 2014 coup, capped by growing disenchantment with a profligate and erratic king who has chosen to make his home in Germany rather than Bangkok, the royalist fervor that paved the way for authoritarian government appears to have waned.

Student protests that have rocked cities across Thailand for weeks have grown into a larger phenomenon. Massive protests this weekend at Thammasat University and on the Sanam Luang royal field near the ornate Grand Palace show the strength of the movement against Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha and his government, and against King Maha Vajiralongkorn, an unpopular, unaccountable monarch who has completely failed to show any interest in the well-being of his people both before and during the Covid-19 induced economic meltdown.

The 60,000-plus protesters in and around Sanam Luang included for the first-time significant numbers of grass-roots level Red Shirts – followers of the long-deposed former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra — who were arrested in droves following the May 22, 2014 coup that brought Prayuth to power. They have dusted off their banners, red garb and hand-clappers to support the students, signaling the beginning of a wider grass-roots movement that the students have called for -- and represents the greatest fear of the government.

The government overplayed its hand in February this year when the Constitutional Court used a pretext to order the dissolution of the popular Future Forward Party headed by the charismatic young Thai aristocrat Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit. The party, which only came into existence a few months before the 2019 general election, reaped 17 percent of the votes nationwide and finished third in the polls.

Government fears that Future Forward could team up with the Thaksin-backed Pheu Thai Party, which won a plurality of seats in the House of Representatives, led to the effort to dissolve it. That in turn led to lingering dissatisfaction among Thailand’s students, who identified strongly with the party’s youth and stated mission against corruption. That played into the growing dissatisfaction with Vajiralongkorn and the clear public sense that his godliness was manufactured rather than earned.

The protest rising against Vajiralongkorn is unprecedented, and it shows the failure of the military’s attempts to award him near godhood in their effort to legitimize their coup. He has contributed to that failure by a long series of bizarre actions and behaviors going back to well before his father, the revered Bhumibol Adulyadej, died at age 89 in 2016 as the world’s longest-serving monarch. Enough of Vajiralongkorn’s behavior, including a series of marriages, divorces and affairs with commoners including cocktail hostesses and flight attendants, accompanied by bizarre wardrobe choices like crop-top shirts that have earned the denigrating moniker “Justin” (named after singer Justin Bieber), has leaked onto social media to cost him the royal aura.

Most recently, at a time when the economy is in dire straits because of the Covid-19 pandemic and the military’s economic mismanagement, it has become public that Vajiralongkorn allegedly built up a huge fleet of 38 jets of various designations and helicopters that are for the exclusive use of the royal family. He flies into the country periodically for royal ceremonies and leaves almost as quickly.

In the face of that profligacy, the economy is expected to contract by 5 percent this year, among the worst performances in the East Asia and Pacific Region, according to the World Bank.

Job losses are expected to be steep, particularly in tourism because of transmission control and social distancing although the country has only 3,500 coronavirus cases and 59 deaths, among the region’s lowest. Nonetheless, as the World Bank points out. “The impact on household welfare is also likely to be severe. The number of economically insecure, i.e., those living below US$5.5 per day, is projected to double from 4.7 million in Q1 2020 to an estimated 9.7 million in Q2 2020, before recovering slightly to 7.8 million in Q3 2020.”

The government knows many people are severely hurting from the impacts of the Covid-19 crisis, and it fears a mass mobilization of a common front led by students who are seen by the Thai people as pure and untainted, and therefore more legitimate than other sorts of political movements in calling for a new constitution and a new government.

The problem is the Thai government is not its own master but must answer to an increasingly absolutist monarch residing in Germany. No one knows what Vajiralongkorn, with billions of dollars seized from the Crown Property Bureau, his own praetorian guard of military and police, and his own dungeon at his Thaweewatana palace in Nakhorn Pathom province, will do. No one doubts he has his own forces who can carry out attacks on the student leaders and their allies, or enforced disappearances like those of the nine missing, and presumed dead, anti-monarchy activists abducted in Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.

The unanswered question is how much forbearance Vajiralongkorn has for these protests and what will be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Given the ultra-royalist orientation of the commanders of the Thai armed forces as well as Prime Minister Prayuth, there is little likelihood they would stand in the way.

The student leaders have clearly proclaimed they are an entirely non-violent movement dedicated to reform and accountability, so any violence that occurs will likely come from the palace. Prayuth is in some ways stuck in the middle because he knows he is not the king’s favorite – supposedly Vajiralongkorn never forgave Prayuth for being the Queen Mother’s favorite when she sat on the throne -- and he is fighting for his own survival. Prayuth knows he could easily be blamed for any violence that occurs and thrown out on the street, to be replaced by an even more compliant government leader of Vajiralongkorn’s own choosing.

The Thai people have measured up Vajiralongkorn and found him wanting, and now they are losing their fear of him. The problem is that he shows a pathological obsession with satiating his whims and desires, and an anachronistic 19th-century god-king attitude that the Thai people exist for him to use and abuse as he likes. This protest shows a rapidly growing number of people are not going to put up with that kind of behavior anymore.

Sanam Luang, where the protesters congregated this weekend, has been off-limits to the public for years and the protest leaders made it clear they were claiming it back for the people, complete with a new plaque to signal the people’s ownership. Their Sunday morning march to the Privy Council to present the 10-point demands to reform the monarchy showed escalated to an all-new level their defiance of the absentee king, ensconced in his luxury residences in Germany. Now, like a Star Wars sequel, the question is how and when the empire will strike back. 

That is a fraught question. In May of 1992 – known as Bloody May or Black May – an estimated 200,000 people took to the streets of Bangkok against the government of General Suchina Kraprayoon, who had taken power in a 1991 coup against the corrupt government of then-Prime Minister Chatichai Choonhavan. The military cracked down with brutal force that took the lives officially of 52 protesters although the real total is believed to have been far higher. Thousands were arrested and hundreds were injured. That didn’t quell the protests despite the brutality.

As the situation worsened, King Bhumibol summoned both Suchinda and Chamlong Srimuang, a leader of the insurrection, to the palaace, where they were televised crawling on the floor in front of the king while he sternly lectured them, saying the violence had to stop. The violence did stop and civilian government returned. It appears highly unlikely that this time around that a new king will step in to cool things off. The chances of violence are rising sharply.