‘You Have Awakened a Sleeping Giant’

A new generation of activists in Thailand is moving away from coded criticism of the military and the monarchy, and publicly calling for wholesale democratic reform.

One student’s sign at the protest read, “No god, no kings, only man.” Another’s said, “You have awakened a sleeping giant.”

Those protesters were among the more than 10,000 people who on Sunday attended an hourslong rally at the Democracy Monument — which was built to commemorate the end of absolute monarchy in Thailand in 1932.

A 19-year-old student at Ramkhamhaeng University, who goes by the nickname Joy, was holding up a handwritten message, “Give us back democracy.”

“We have no choice but to come out,” she said. “This government has got to go.”

The gathering was the largest, and boldest, protest yet since a military junta overthrew the last democratically elected government in 2014.

Students like Joy want change: They want a military subordinate to elected officials, a monarchy subordinate to the Constitution and a new Constitution that would protect majority rule.

By way of pointed rap songs, “The Hunger Games” salutes and Harry Potter memes, on university campuses or in the streets, protesters have been calling for the government’s resignation and systemic democratic reform.

Such demands may seem reasonable, but they are remarkable in Thailand given the risks of speaking out, especially against the monarchy: The lèse-majesté law carries a penalty of up to 15 years in prison, and the junta that seized power in 2014 — and is thought to have then manipulated the general election last year to keep power with a veneer of legitimacy — has used other laws, like the cyber crimes act, to squelch dissent.

This moment is unlike any in recent Thai history. A new generation of activists has moved from expressing coded criticism of the monarchy to publicly calling for wholesale reform.

And this surge of plain-talk activism is stirring dread and warnings — maybe even threats? — of another crackdown: The Thai security forces killed pro-democracy protesters in 1973, 1976, 1992 and 2010.

Perhaps it was inevitable that the end of King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s 70-year reign in 2016 would mean a revision of the political order of his days — in which the palace, the army, the bureaucracy and the courts claimed to have a veto on political authority, never mind popular will.

During the twilight of King Bhumibol’s rule, conflicts recurred between establishment forces and majoritarian representation.

Voters elected the businessman Thaksin Shinawatra prime minister in 2001; he was ousted by the military in 2006. Thaksin’s sister Yingluck was elected in 2011. Her government was deposed in 2014 in a coup led by the retired general Prayuth Chan-ocha, who is the prime minister today.

The generals or their proxies enacted in 2017 a Constitution that cemented elite rule. The prime minister does not need to be an elected member of Parliament (and Mr. Prayuth is not). The senate is appointed, not elected, and it has been filled with cronies handpicked by the junta. The judiciary has been empowered to discipline politicians.

Since succeeding his father Bhumibol, King Maha Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun, who spends most of his time in Germany, has asked that the latest Constitution be amended to facilitate his reigning from abroad, and he has taken direct control of the royal family’s vast assets, as well as command over the Bangkok-based army units that were instrumental in carrying out coups in the past.

The junta, for its part, has extended its rule by holding an election in March 2019 — making sure to come out on top of that, thanks partly to the disqualification of some candidates and the reapportionment of seats after the voting.

The fledgling Future Forward Party posed a new challenge to the traditional elites then, by running on a platform advocating the breaking up of monopolies, decentralizing power and removing the military from politics. The party placed third in the popular vote count, winning 6.2 million of the 36.2 million ballots cast, many of those from first-time voters.

But earlier this year the Constitutional Court dissolved Future Forward on legal grounds that human rights groups have called dubious; the party’s leaders face criminal charges that could send them to prison for years.

The rise and dissolution of Future Forward helped politicize a new generation raised on Facebook, Twitter and South Korean pop music. Anti-government protests had started gaining momentum earlier this year. Lockdown measures to deal with the coronavirus put a damper on protests, but with the country’s comparatively good performance on that front, and the lifting of restrictions since early July, protesters have returned in force, with major grievances and sweeping demands.

One placard at the protest in Bangkok on Sunday read: “It’s so bad even introverts are here.”

Younger protesters decry Thailand’s stultifying economic and social hierarchy; they want an end to what some call “feudalism.” They denounce the double standards of a system that coddles the well-off and well-connected.

On Sunday, a woman in her late 50s seated by the barrier separating the crowd from the stage set up for speakers said: “Why are these generals so rich? All they do is cheat. They should be in prison.”

The extreme concentration of political power has also led to an extreme concentration of wealth. Atop Thailand’s oligarchic pyramid sits the Crown Property Bureau, which manages the royal family’s properties and investments — a fortune estimated at between $50 billion and $60 billion and since mid-2018 under the king’s direct oversight. According to a report by Credit Suisse, in 2019 Thailand’s one percent owned 50.4 percent of the country’s total wealth.

Even before the pandemic, incomes had been stagnating, and poverty, debt and inequality were rising. Then in late May the government’s planning unit estimated that up to 14.4 million people — in a country of about 69 million — could be out of the work by the end of the year, mainly because of the pandemic.

The 500,000 students who will graduate from university this year face the worse job market in decades. Government figures released on Monday show that Thailand’s gross domestic product for the second quarter of 2020 dropped by 12.2 percent year on year: The country’s worst performance since the Asian financial crisis of 1997-98.

The people now demanding needed change face real risks. Government critics are routinely harassed and intimidated. Dissidents in exile have disappeared, been abducted or murdered.

Both supporters and critics of the current protests cite a possible replay of the massacre of Oct. 6, 1976, in which security forces and right-wing paramilitaries shot, lynched and killed scores of pro-democracy student protesters at Thammasat University.

Then, as in recent times, the military leadership has said that activists were Communists. The army chief has said they are people who “hate their nation” and are a disease worse than Covid-19.

At this point, only massive repression could put a lid on the demands for reform aired in recent weeks — on the other hand, bloodshed would most likely be self-defeating for the authorities. Back in 1976, the Oct. 6 massacre spurred thousands of students to join the Communist rebels in the jungle.

Students today are not calling for the monarchy’s abolition so much as for the authorities’ accountability under the law.

The royalists are responding with strained arguments — about fidelity to a supposedly immutable Thai culture, about the karmic merit of power, about the young needing to know their place.

Their failure to quell dissent could allow the longstanding taboo against criticizing the monarchy to be shattered altogether. But repression would only further undermine the legitimacy of the existing order.

Either way, short of real political reform, the ideological potency of royalism in Thailand can only be undermined, perhaps irreversibly.