Asia

Testing royal taboos: Inside Thailand’s new youth protests 

BANGKOK: Over two days of video calls earlier this month, about a dozen students from Thailands Kasetsart and Mahanakorn universities debated whether to break a taboo that could land them in jail: Openly challenging the countrys powerful monarchy, according to two people on the calls.

Protesters on the streets and online have made a growing number of veiled references to King Maha Vajiralongkorn over the last few months as they push for greater democracy, but nobody had dared make a public call for changes at the palace.

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The students discussed on the calls a Harry Potter wizard-themed protest and considered stopping short of open confrontation by only mentioning "He Who Must Not Be Named," a reference to Potters archenemy in the JK Rowling books, the two participants said.

READ: Thais 'cast a spell' for democracy in Harry Potter-themed protest

The argument for a clearer – but riskier – statement won out.

On the evening of Aug 3 human rights lawyer Anon Nampa, 35, took the stage at Bangkok's Democracy Monument and called for the palace's powers to be curbed, an extremely rare event.

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“No other democratic countries allow the king to have this much power over the military,” he told about 200 protesters, with police standing by as he spoke.

“This increases the risk that a monarchy in a democracy could become an absolute monarchy.”

While the country has been roiled by decades of political turmoil, street protesters have not previously sought changes to the monarchy, which the Constitution says must be held "in a position of revered worship".

File photo of Thailand's King Maha Vajiralongkorn arriving to pay his respects at the King Rama I monument to honour the start of the Chakri dynasty's reign in Bangkok, Thailand, Apr 6, 2020. (Photo: REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha)

Any form of challenge to the monarchy was extremely rare under Vajiralongkorn's father, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who died in 2016 after 70 years on the throne.

Neither Anon nor any of the protesters have been charged with breaking Thailands lese majeste law, which punishes criticism of the monarchy by up to 15 years in prison.

However, on Aug 7 police said Anon was taken into custody and charged with several offences relating to a separate protest on Jul 18, including "raising unrest and disaffection amongst the people", which carries a maximum seven-year sentence.

READ: Thai police arrest 2 leaders of student protests

Anon has denied all charges, said his lawyer Weeranan Huadsri. He was freed on bail on Saturday.

The Royal Palace declined to comment on the protests or the more outspoken calls for royal powers to be curbed.

Defence Ministry spokesman Kongcheep Tantrawanit said: “Don't draw the monarchy into conflict, it is not appropriate. The monarchy is a centre of unity for the Thai people.”

SWEPT UNDER THE RUG

Anons open call for reform underscored the scale and speed of change in Thailand as some members of a new generation take on an establishment tied to the close relationship between the palace and the army. The king, a former army officer, is officially commander-in-chief of the armed forces.

“This is an issue that people want to talk about,” said Patsalawalee Tanakitwiboonpon, a 24-year-old engineering student at Mahanakorn University who helped plan and spoke at the protest on Monday.

“It has been swept under the rug for so long. So we think it is better if we can talk about this issue rationally and in the open.”

A pro-democracy protester dressed as a wizard holds up a picture of Lord Voldemort during a Harry Potter-themed protest demanding the resignation of Thailand's Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha in Bangkok, Thailand, Aug 3, 2020. (Photo: REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha)

The latest series of protests have grown from a handful of peaceful, online-organised flash mobs, mostly on university campuses, to dozens of street demonstrations across Thailand and millions of people following hashtags online such as #FreeYouth.

READ: Thai protesters demand the release of anti-government activists

The reaction from authorities, so far, has been limited. Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, who first took power in a 2014 military coup, told reporters on Aug 4, the day after Anons speech, that the government was open to talking to the students. He said on Jun 15 that the king had requested no prosecutions under the lese majeste law.

Army chief Apirat Kongsompong was not so conciliatory. In a speech to cadets on Aug 5, he said: "COVID is a curable disease, but hating the nation, hating one's own country, this a disease that is not curable."

READ: Thai army chief says 'hatred of nation' bigger threat than COVID-19

On Aug 4, the day after the protest, Anon told Reuters he was “not too worried” about being arrested. He had planned to speak out about the monarchy at two further protests in coming days, according to his Facebook page.

The police said in a statement on Friday that Anon and another organiser were arrested because it had received complaints about the Jul 18 protest and that an investigation was under way. Police declined to say who had complained or describe the nature of the complaints.

The police did not explain why Anon had not been charged under the lese majeste law for his speech at the Aug 3 protest.

BOUND IN HISTORY

Even though King Vajiralongkorn spends much of his time in Germany, his image is pervasive in Thailand. Gold-framed royal portraits look down on city streets. Cinemas play a royal anthem at which audiences are traditionally expected to stand.

File photo of demonstrators walk past a portrait of Thai King Maha Vajiralongkorn during a protest demanding the resignation of Thailand's Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, in Bangkok, Thailand, Jul 26, 2020. (Photo: REUTERS/Jorge Silva)

Many Thai conservatives say the bond between the monarchy and army is a guarantee of stability. The military strongly supports the palace's position as Thailands highest moral authority, with its head taking an unprecedented public oath last year to only support a government that backs the monarchy.

READ: Thai PM asks student protesters 'not to create chaos'

Some analysts say the military uses its close association with the monarchy to justify its prominent role in Thai politics. Ex-army chief Prayut has appointed three retired military leaders to Cabinet positions and more than a third of Senate seats are held by current or former military officers.

Meanwhile, the king has strengthened his Constitutional powers since he took the throne in 2016. In his speech, Anon gave two examples of the king accruing powers he described as incompatible with democracy: Prayuts government transferring two army units to the kings personal control in 2019 and moving the crowns vast property holdings into the kings name in 2017.

"Yes, I am afraid, but if we don't come out to talk about what is necessary then the problems will continue,” said student Thanapol Panngam, 27, one of the organisers of Mondays protest.

READ: Thai youths resort to subversive anime in pro-democracy protest

File photo of a demonstrator holding a soft toy Hamtaro during a protest demanding the resignation of Thailand's Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, in Bangkok, Thailand, Jul 26, 2020. (Photo: REUTERS/Jorge Silva)

So far, only a handful of the dozens of student protest groups have openly criticised the monarchy, but they are united in demanding change afRead More – Source