BANGKOK – Thai students, who are set to hold fresh protests in Bangkok this weekend, have broken a taboo by bringing to the discussion table a reform of the monarchy, challenging the country’s conservative elite in a potentially dangerous move.
The students, who had gathered a crowd of at least 10,000 people on Aug. 16, are expecting to overtake the number on Saturday at a demonstration in the Thammasat University that will continue overnight and the next day.
The demands include a reform of the constitution and the dissolution of the parliament, which they consider a successor to the military junta that ruled the country between 2014-2019.
However, their most contentious demand is limiting the power of the monarchy, subjecting it to constitutional controls, and ending the lèse-majesté law that lays down prison terms of up to 15 years and other punishments for criticizing the royal household.
Apart from a heated debate on social media, Thai citizens have begun to discuss the monarchy in public, while some have even stopped standing up for the national anthem in cinema halls, an act which would have been unthinkable until recently.
The current monarch, King Vajiralongkorn, has not inherited the charisma and respect enjoyed by his father, late Bhumibol Adulyadej, and spends a large part of the year in Germany, evoking criticism during the coronavirus pandemic.
Amid the protests, the parliament is set to increase the royal household’s budget by 16 percent to 8.98 billion baht ($288.4 million), including the expenditure for maintaining a fleet of 38 airplanes and helicopters.
The increased allocation could also prove controversial as the country is battling a recession due to the pandemic, with the GDP expected to contract by over 8 percent this year.
For decades, nobody had dared to publicly demand a monarchy reform in Thailand, which shows an evident generation gap between the university student and their parents, many of whom are against this debate.
“We have broken the ceiling (…). The birds are flying in the sky. How high can they fly? We have to wait and see,” Parit “Penguin” Chaiwarak, one of the leaders from Thammasat, said in a press conference about their demands.
Apart from prison sentences, the possible consequences for critics of the monarchy can at times include exile or something even worse.
In recent years, at least eight activists accused of lèse-majesté have disappeared in Laos and Cambodia, and the corpses of two of them were found in the Mekong river.
“The debate and discussion about the monarchy in Thailand is not new. It has been silenced since the Thammasat massacre on Oct. 6, 1976,” Kan Yuenyong, an analyst at the Siam Intelligence Unit, told EFE.
During these protests, at least 100 students were lynched and assassinated by soldiers and far-right groups amid a pro-democracy movement.
However, Kan said if the government of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha resorted to violence to suppress the current protests, it would lose its legitimacy “very quickly,” which would trigger a political crisis.
“The recent protests led by the students have been perceived as a voice of the younger generation without political interests (…). So the public perception still views these protests as very legitimate,” he said.
The analyst said some students had for years campaigned for educational reforms and human rights, but had now gone further to criticize the monarchy and the military on social networks fearlessly.
The recent student demonstrations kicked off at the beginning of this year to protest against the judiciary dissolving Anakot Mai (Future Forward Party), an emerging political formation of the opposition that had found significant support among the youth for its progressive agenda.
After a gap due to the pandemic, Thammasat student protesters returned to the streets in July and on Aug. 10 with a list of 10 demands to reform the monarchy and reducing its political influence.
Among other things, the students have claimed that Vajiralongkorn – who ascended the throne in 2016 – has increased control over units of the military and the massive wealth of the royal household, estimated to be around $ 35 billion.
With seven children from multiple marriages, the king divorced his third wife Srirasmi in 2014, while many of her relatives including her parents and siblings were sent to prison on charges of using the royal family’s image for personal gain.
Last year Vajiralongkorn married former flight attendant Suthida and named her the queen, months before officially introducing a royal consort, Sineenat Wongvajirapakdi.
Although his late father maintained a more popular image, the students have recalled that he endorsed each military government after multiple coups in the country, which has witnessed 13 military coups since the end of absolute monarchy in 1932.