Thai Students on a Collision Course with Royalty

Could a murderous history repeat itself?

Thailand’s erratic king, Maha Vajiralongkorn, flew into his increasingly restive kingdom on August 12 from his home in Germany amid widespread student protests, to swear in a new cabinet put together by the junta that has run the country since a 2014 coup.

The king – not bothering to wear a face-mask in the middle of a pandemic – called for “order and peace” but didn’t mention the protesters, who have issued an unprecedented 10-point demand seeking to curb the powers he has assumed since taking over from his revered father Bhumibol Adulyadej, who died at age 89 in 2016.

The 68-year-old Vajiralongkorn has been accused of attempting to take the country back to the absolute monarchy that existed prior to the 1932 coup that ostensibly introduced constitutional government, which was quickly nullified by a military that has run the country ever since from behind the scenes.

The thousands of students who took to the streets in two recent demonstrations run a serious risk, not only by defying the world’s most stringent lèse-majesté laws against insulting the monarchy, which carry a maximum 15-year prison sentence, but of inviting the kind of violence that resulted in the 1973 and 1976 massacres of students by police and right-wing paramilitaries that took scores of lives.

The students' protests are a new phenomenon, separate from the past Red Shirt vs. Yellow Shirt political divides that wracked the country through the first decade of this century, and also from the controversy over the government's deeply unpopular decision in February to dissolve the opposition Future Forward Party headed by Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, former vice president of Thai Summit Group, and Piyabutr Saengkanokkul, a legal scholar, on specious legal grounds.

“These are youth who are angry at the prospect of an endless future of an absentee monarch enforcing his political will behind the scenes with the help of a kleptocratic, rights-abusing military who wrap themselves in royal colors to justify their continued rule,” said a Bangkok-based human rights activist.

Vajiralongkorn’s elevation to the throne had been anticipated for years but was universally dreaded by Thailand’s power elite when it occurred in 2016. But the military, the perpetrator of 19 coups d’etat since 1932, backed him to gain legitimacy. He spends virtually all of his time in Germany, appearing in Thailand mostly for ceremonies aboard either his own 737 jet or one commandeered from the government-controlled Thai Airways International.

Despite his prolonged absences, he has tightened control over government functions to make himself an unquestioned leader. He also named one of his consorts, Suditha, a Royal Thai Army general and later deputy commander of the king's personal guard, sacking her predecessor for assuming too many powers. Suditha had previously been a Thai International flight attendant.

The 15,000-plus students and others who protested at Thammasat Rangsit on August 10 issued what can only be termed truly revolutionary demands, calling for a significant overhaul of the relationship between the monarchy and the subservient government, and taking the relationship back to what the revolutionists intended in 1932, when they abolished the absolute monarchy with their coup and roundly defeated reactionary royalist rebels in 1933. 

The fundamental problem is that Vajiralongkorn operates totally above the law, with his own military and police commando units, his own dungeon, and control of vast lands and a fortune upwards of US$60 billion that makes him the world's richest monarch by far. This would be bad enough, but it is also enforced by a slavish military and government who snap to attention, ready to implement any order.

The student protesters are now saying what everyone knows to be true but have been too scared to say - that the king is trying to reinstall an absolute monarchy in the guise of a democracy controlled by the military behind the scenes. Irritation has been rising for several months, with the hashtag #มีกษัตริย์ไว้ทำไม or #WhyDoWeNeedKing climbing to the top Thai Twitter feed in April, a shocking erosion of reverence for the monarchy and an indication that Vajiralongkorn’s womanizing, decision to live in Germany rather than in his own kingdom, and his publicized cruelty against anyone who crosses his path is starting to tell. 

Beyond that, the students are angry and worried about their future and standing up to say they will not go along.  The enforced disappearance and likely murder of an activist Wanchelearm Satsaksit, 37, from his home in political exile in Phnom Penh, is widely believed to have been at the behest of the palace, which wanted to send a signal to other exiled activists - really angered the students. 

“This generation has grown up when the royal hegemony has been fading,” said a Thai academic. “When the 2014 coup took place, they were in secondary school. They witnessed the corruption scandals, impunity, nepotism, and incompetence of the military regime. Their parent's worldview of hyper-royalism has little effect on them. On the contrary, they learned about the monarchy through social media, not from the compulsory daily TV program. They somehow understand what the network monarchy means and functions. Their movement is getting bigger, even though their strong anti-monarchy stance scared off lots of people.”

Thailand, the academic said, “is witnessing a very exciting but increasingly confrontational and dangerous episode as the ruling elites and the palace will never give in to democratic demands. Many students and activists will soon face arrests and prosecution, which will not stop their movements. It's likely that it will finally lead to a crackdown, but may not be so ugly like that of Oct 6, 1976. But this may not happen today, maybe six months to a year from now. The elites need time to build up their legitimacy and anti-student sentiment  as well as mobilize their right wing mass. This is a very long, messy, and dangerous fight.”

What is particularly chilling is Thai police received orders from people above the police chief to arrest the current 31 protest leaders on a list that was leaked to the media, and widely circulated. The arrests for sedition of Arnon Nampa, a 35-year-old human rights lawyer, and 'Mike Rayong,' or Panupong Jaadnok were just the first two activists to get taken in. Many more arrests are expected once Vajiralongkorn finishes paying his respects to his mother and jets off back to Germany. Conducting the arrests while he is in Thailand on his brief visit would be unseemly and too easy to connect to him. 

There are credible reports that the king is furious with the defiance of the students.  He may never have been expected to be loved by his people, and perhaps even he recognizes that his behavior, including naming his dog an air marshal among other hijinks, has made that impossible - but at least he expected to be respected, or failing that, feared.

The students are not even giving him that, with their demands and outspoken calls for reform. The king is not known for his tolerance or sympathy, so most observers expect there will likely be a ferocious, royally ordered crackdown coming soon. The only question is whether this will be done by mainline police and military units, or whether it will be done by his praetorian guard who operates with complete impunity.

With a monarch operating above and outside democratic norms, the students are right to demand constitution reform, but the military-drafted constitution that is currently in place really makes amendments impossible. The Senate, appointed by the junta, is likely to never countenance the kind of reforms they want.

Also, Prayuth Chan-ocha, the prime minister, is unlikely to ever agree to voluntarily stand down or dissolve the Parliament unless he is ordered to do so by the king. But while Thailand’s economy, like much of the rest of Southeast Asia, is suffering from the effects of the Covid-19 crisis that has swept much of the world, the junta has come in for widespread criticism for mismanaging it badly.  The state planning agency in May cut its forecast for 2020 GDP from 1.5-2.5 percent growth projected in February to a contraction of 5.0-6.0 percent. It is the deepest decline since Thailand’s currency crisis kicked off the Asian Financial Crisis of 1998. Phacharaphot Nugtramas, an economist at Krung Thai Bank, was quoted as predicting the economy will shrink by 8.8 percent this year.

There is thus widespread dissatisfaction with both the government and the king.  But the students dare a government that shows no compunction about cracking down on them. On the morning of October 6, 1976, right-wing elements, aided by the police, raided Thammasat University in Bangkok, falsely accusing the students of carrying out a mock hanging of the crown prince – Vajiralongkorn. Officially, 46 students were killed. But the toll is believed to have been above 100 with the royalist right accusing the students of seeking the destruction of the monarchy as a transition to communism. No real accounting has ever been made of the affair.

“So right now,” said a Bangkok-based source, “it looks like the student protesters are charging straight into a blind alley with no way out - and with royalist wolves on all sides, waiting for the command to tear them apart.”

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