2020 has seen many political agitations worldwide, including one in Thailand, where student protests have evolved into the biggest demonstrations the country has seen since protests against the military coup conducted by the current regime of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha in 2014. 

In February 2020, in a burst of government suppression, the Future Forward Party (a party favored by Thai youth) faced dissolution. In response, the party launched a movement aimed at reforming the political environment and the institution of the monarchy. The COVID-19 pandemic put demonstrations on hold for a few months, but Thai people returned to the streets in July after the outbreak in the country was virtually contained. Despite the government ban on public gatherings of over five people, the movement was joined by more people than before, with greater ambition to reshape the political architecture of the country.

Three demands for change

An Internet search for “Thai Student Movement” will generate many photos of people at the Democracy Monument in Bangkok. Protesters raise their hands high with three fingers abreast, a gesture taken from the book and film series The Hunger Games. The salute represents the three core demands of the movement: election of a more functional parliament, revision of the constitution so that it truly serves the people, and an end to intimidation of dissidents and critics by the Thai government. The resignation of the prime minister and reformation of the monarchy have now also been put on to the agenda, as the movement has grown into a more comprehensive call for the transformation of the country. 

On October 18, a gathering to support the Thai student movement was held in Paris by L’Association des Démocrates Thaïlandais sans Frontières. One of the speakers that day, Soonyata Mianlamai, told The Paris Globalist that Chan-o-cha should be dismissed since he serves the monarchy instead of the people. Chan-o-cha rose to power in 2014 following a military coup. He took advantage of social tensions to initiate the coup, using his authority in the Royal Thai Army and backed by then-King Bhumibol. Chan-o-cha’s administration has since suppressed opposition parties and censored dissenting groups in society. Several dissidents in exile in neighboring countries have been abducted in broad daylight and remain unfound. Many Thai have accused their government of orchestrating these disappearances.

Mianlamai stressed the urgent need for the Thai constitution to be redesigned based on the mandate of the Thai people. The current constitution was drafted after the coup succeeded. It dictates that the Senate should be completely selected by the coup leaders. Any attempt to make amendments to the constitution or introduce legislation that is deemed harmful by the regime is bound to face huge obstacles. 

The impact of COVID-19

The economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has amplified popular discontent with the Chan-o-cha administration. Tourism is an important economic pillar of Thailand: the revenue generated by the industry accounted for 12% of the Thai national income in 2019, with 39.8 million foreign tourists visiting the country. Tourism in Thailand has been severely affected by the pandemic, as the Thai government imposed a nation-wide curfew and a closure of borders in March. Since the containment of the virus in the country, however, the government has failed to efficiently revive the economy. The government’s insistence on extending  the curfew and emergency decree attracted backlash from the public. Many viewed it as a means to simply suffocate the public demonstration.

In mid-October, the government introduced an emergency decree that limited public gatherings and the journalistic coverage on the pro-democracy movement. The policy drew concern from the people and journalistic organizations about freedom of speech in the country.

The royal family, another straw

Thai royalty does not possess the official right to interfere in domestic politics. But the king has long been a crucial symbol of national solidarity, and is often granted the authority to make ultimate decisions whenever there are divisive debates in society. But unlike his father Bhumibol Adulyadej, who was widely revered, King Maha Vajiralongkorn has been beset with disrepute since his ascension to the throne in 2016. 

King Vajiralongkorn fueled popular anger towards the royal family when he stayed in a grand hotel in Germany  with his concubines, while Thailand experienced the peak of the coronavirus pandemic earlier in May. He was condemned for abandoning his people while continuing to interfere in Thai politics from afar. Recently, Heiko Maas, Foreign Minister of Germany, also commented on the situation, specifying that the Thai king should not reign from German soil.

In Thailand, it is illegal to insult and criticize members of the royal family. Article 112 in the Thai criminal code states that those who violate the lèse-majesté law could face imprisonment for up to 15 years. But the current demonstrations in Thailand are pushing the limits of freedom of expression and openly criticizing the royal family. This change was made possible by technological advancement that permits the circulation of anti-monarchy hashtags and campaigns on social media.

Mianlamai believes that the monarchy is the most important issue of conflict in Thai society, and that it must be resolved to establish a truly democratic political environment. She told The Paris Globalist that there are several goals to work on, including limiting the royal family’s interference in politics, controlling and making transparent their spending, and abandoning the lèse-majesté law.

A divided society

The Thai people are famous for their warm disposition. Now, the world is witnessing how Thai youth are defying the status quo to pursue real freedom and a democratic political system. The demonstrations are further polarizing Thai society, which was already divided between younger generations, who wish to see meaningful changes to domestic politics, and the older generations who support the monarchy. Today’s student movement is a tug-of-war between different generations. This historical juncture will determine Thailand’s future and redefine the social pillars of the country.

“The young people were born in an era where Thailand is plagued with severe socioeconomic, environmental, humanitarian, as well as educational problems. But the government cannot fix anything,” Mianlamai said. She told The Paris Globalist that she is not afraid of sanctions from the Thai government. 

“It is time that Thai stop being afraid. If everybody speaks out together, there is nothing to be afraid of.”