Thailand Faces a Likely 2021 of Turmoil
Despite what may be a losing hand, students have changed the perception of the country
Although Thailand’s youthful protesters say they will be back with the new year underway to continue demands including curbing the powers of the monarchy, engineering a change of government and reforming the country’s education system, it appears increasingly likely that Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha and King Maha Vajiralongkorn will ride out the crisis although not without scars.
Scars indeed. One academic told Asia Sentinel that “in my opinion, 2020 was a losing year for the monarchy. Never before in Thai history has it been criticized, humiliated, and ridiculed to this extent. In just less than four years under Rama X (Vajiralongkorn), the monarchy lost the popular loyalty and legitimacy King Rama IX tirelessly built for seven decades.” King Bhumibol Adulyadej never left the country after assuming the throne and promoted personal integrity and frugality despite the opulence of the Thai palaces.
Whether the students win or lose – and they are increasingly likely to see their demands unmet as time wears on – as the academic points out they have in effect changed the country’s view of the monarchy – although the king has had a considerable hand in that himself with his antics and his womanizing, which social media have spread across all levels of society. “The barriers to discussing the monarchy in the media are beginning to fall away, with royal wealth, power, and republicanism reported in detail,” wrote US-based academic Kevin Hewison in the East Asia Forum, a think tank based at the Australian National University’s Crawford School of Public Policy.
Prayuth has fared little better than the king, with a March 2019 national election designed to return the country to civil rule that was universally regarded as fixed to keep him in power. Although opposition parties won a plurality of the vote, the military-backed government engineered the continuation of the ruling coalition and the disbandment of the popular, youthful Future Forward Party headed by Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, former vice president of Thai Summit Group, further alienating students. The government, which won praise for curbing the Covid-19 coronavirus, appeared to have lost control of the situation in December as thousands of migrants who had fled to Myanmar and other countries began streaming back against porous borders. The number of cases has surpassed 7,000, with clusters of infections growing.