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Thailand has been gripped by the largest wave of protest in years, forcing a reckoning between the country’s dual structures of democracy and monarchy.
“Monarchy must go,” declared a small paper sign written by a group of schoolgirls who joined a local rally in the town square of Udon Thani, a regional center in Thailand, on September 11. “We need Democracy not Monarchy!” added another. This collective, referring to themselves by the initials of their school name, “RN Revolution,” is one among hundreds of youth groups from all over the country joining in a dramatic new wave of protest in the country’s protracted struggle for democracy and justice. What inspired these teenage girls to publicly acknowledge the fact that democracy and monarchy in Thailand may well be incompatible—a statement that can easily elicit charges of sedition or lèse-majesté? And what is compelling people like them to integrate “issue-specific” demands—from school culture reform and gender equality to bureaucratic transparency and land rights—into the banner of monarchical change? The king, supposedly the very figure of national unity, has become a different kind of national glue.
Thailand is formally a constitutional monarchy, but in recent years the king has made it clear that he is above the constitution rather than bound by it.
Thailand is formally a constitutional monarchy, but in the eighty-eight years since the introduction of democracy it has done away with nineteen constitutions and charters—mainly through the force of military takeovers. The current constitution, drafted under the military junta that took power in 2014, restructured the parliament to pit an elected 500-member House of Representatives against a 250-member Senate entirely handpicked by the junta from a pool of 600 candidates, most of whom were themselves nominated by a junta-appointed panel. This egregious example of unaccountability conveys the general distrust the Thai establishment has toward the electorate. Many conservatives still lament the fact of the 1932 revolution, believing that the people weren’t ready for it, and that then king Prajadhipok was planning to give democracy to the people anyway.
With a strip of white tape over their embroidered names on their uniforms, members of the RN Revolution group from the all-girls Satri Rachinuthit School attend a rally in Udon Thani City. The sign in the bottom reads: "I Am a Product That Is Faulty / From a System That Malfunctions." Image used by permission of Dao Din Samanchon.
So much for the Thai constitution. As for the monarchy, in recent years the current king has made it clear that he is above the constitution rather than bound by it. King Maha Vajiralongkorn, who inherited the throne after the death of his father, Bhumibol Adulyadej, in 2016, has eschewed Bhumibol’s more discreet approach to political manipulation in favor of a direct consolidation of military, police, and executive power under his personal mandate. In fewer than four years, the new king—with his highly decorated collection of private planes and private female guards—has squandered the legacy of public adoration for his father, who was meticulously portrayed as a paragon of frugality and family values. The current protests taking place inside and outside the country—including ones in front of His Majesty’s serene Bavarian residence—have a lot to do with knocking the king down several notches. It’s a long shot, but Thai people of all political persuasions know that this may be the only path the monarchy has for its long-term survival.
In the eighty-eight years since the introduction of democracy Thailand has done away with nineteen constitutions and charters—mainly through the force of military takeovers.
Most illustrative of Vajiralongkorn’s style of rule is his hot-and-cold treatment of his royal noble consort Sineenat Wongvajirapakdi. Last year, within three months of officially naming Sineenat to this position—a hitherto obsolete title for an extra royal partner—the king stripped her of all titles and privileges in a written announcement chastising her ungratefulness and her ambitious plot to replace the queen. This year, after the king made international news in the spring for hunkering down with his alleged “harem” of twenty women in Germany in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, summer brought another scandal when he suddenly exonerated Sineenat, restored her unique title, and airlifted her from secret confinement back to Europe with him, nonchalantly taking back his own word. With respect to this “domestic” inequality, Vajiralongkorn is most similar to the Swazi King Mswati III, notorious for his fifteen wives and jet-setting lifestyle while the government runs out of funds to pay pensions for the elderly. The key difference is that polygyny is legal in Swaziland/eSwatini, while Siamese/Thai law has settled on monogamy since the 1930s, after the formal end of absolute monarchy.
Actual power in Thailand may well lie in the hands of plutocrats and caudillos (not that the king isn’t a plutocrat and caudillo himself, with an estimated net worth of $30-43 billion as well as multiple military units under his personal command). Still, virtually all of them pledge allegiance to the king and show that allegiance through generous donations of money and materiel. The prominent ten-point proposal for monarchical reform launched on August 10 by the United Front of Thammasat and Demonstration group lays bare such tentacles of royal power hugging all sorts of institutions. This is the list of demands, which begin with the legislative but suggestively end with the extrajudicial: allow parliamentary examination into the king’s wrongdoing; revoke the lèse-majesté law and grant amnesty for critics; draw the line between the crown’s assets under government control and his personal assets; reduce the national budget allocated to the king in line with economic conditions; abolish unnecessary royal service agencies and transfer the rest under relevant ministries; cease all donations to and from royal charity funds and make all royal assets auditable; cease the exercise of royal prerogative over political opinion; cease excessive glorification of the monarchy in public relations and education; get to the bottom of the deaths and disappearances of critics and others who had some kind of relation with the monarchy; and finally, prohibit the king from endorsing any future coup d’état.
The weekend of September 19 saw the largest political gathering in Bangkok since the latest coup in 2014, with estimates ranging from 20,000 to 200,000 people.
This last demand daringly reaches back into the more popular reign of Bhumibol, who over his seventy-year tenure—from 1946 to 2016—implicitly endorsed many a military coup that periodically broke out and reset the body politic’s slow gains in democracy building in the name of peace, order, anti-corruption, and national reconciliation. Elaborating on this demand in August, twenty-two-year-old activist Parit Chiwarak astutely compared Spanish King Juan Carlos I’s refusal to endorse a coup attempt in 1981 to the Thai king’s own anomalous refusal that same year, which directly resulted in the coup attempt’s failure—flipping the script of Bhumibol’s hagiography from Thai democracy’s guardian angel to its corrupting agent.
It is important to note that protesters’ demands aren’t exactly new; they pick up where the Red Shirt movement left off. In Thailand’s color-coded politics, bookended by two royally endorsed coups in 2006 and 2014, disenfranchised Red Shirt protesters demanded the return to electoral democracy, while Yellow Shirt protesters appealed to royal hegemony to drain the swamp of populist politics. At various points, members of the royal family showed explicit support for the Yellow Shirts and their allies. In contrast, the Red Shirts suffered a disproportionately deadly military crackdown and harsh punishment in the court of law. The disillusionment many Thais felt toward the royal family led to the explosion of criticism in the early 2010s, which was then snuffed out by the military junta that took power in 2014. Partly because Red Shirt demographics tilt toward the countryside and the lower middle class, their demands and contributions never got the same level of sympathy and recognition that young college-educated urban protesters are getting today.
• • •
The weekend of September 19, which marked the fourteenth anniversary of the coup d’état that ushered in Thailand’s ongoing crisis of political legitimacy, saw the largest political gathering in Bangkok since the more recent 2014 coup, with estimates ranging from 20,000 to 200,000 people. While still a small percentage of the country’s total population of around 70 million, this was no small feat. Protest leaders occupied the once-public Royal Ground in the city’s historical center, renamed it People’s Ground, and installed a plaque to announce once again the end of absolute monarchy, pompously reenacting the People’s Party announcement of its nascent revolution nearly ninety years ago. This time around, there was more of a critical mass to sustain the momentum, a broader coalition of people coming together to transform a moment of possibility into a veritable movement. The rallies weren’t only symbolic; they were also meant to facilitate the collection of 50,000 signatures required to submit a proposal for constitutional amendment to parliament. More than twice that number has been achieved in fewer than two months, largely through local volunteering efforts. The cumulative effect of all this clamor can be felt at the parliamentary level, which as I write is going through its own crisis of faith on the pro-democracy opposition.
The fearful wait-and-see attitude toward the new reign that pervaded Thailand four years ago has been superseded by a decisive impatience: we’re sick of waiting; we’ve seen enough; let’s get it over with now.
With the ceiling of acceptable criticism blown off, language has taken on a particularly charged political power. One can now publicly address the king without hiding behind the typical circumlocutions. Most interesting in this regard was the subversive use of language by twenty-two-year-old activist Panusaya Sithijirawattanakul in her speech reiterating the ten-point proposal directly to the king. In a markedly ceremonial register—polite and sarcastic in equal measure—she warned him of the repercussions he would face if he refused to consider the demands. After opening with His Majesty’s full name—which took her nearly twenty seconds to say—and amid the crowd’s exhilarated applause and cheers at each rhyming section of the belabored name, Panusaya rejected the customary form of kingly address via the lowest point of his body—“beneath the dust under the soles of Your Majesty’s feet” (tai fa la-ong thulee phra bat)—and instead referred to him generically as phra ong, preserving a modicum of respect for royal status.
Equally remarkable was Panusaya’s choice to refer to herself as kramom rather than its female version, momchan. Not only did she eschew the customary first-person pronoun (kha phra phutthajao), opting for the least elaborate pronoun available in the intricate scheme of address between commoner and royalty of various ranks, she also quietly reclaimed the male pronoun kramom referring to the crown of one’s head—the highest point of the commoner’s body—thereby suggesting a shift of its referent from her inferior status to her thinking brain. When she closed her speech by insisting on the common humanity between addresser and addressee, Panusaya in effect restored humanity to the king as well. Rather than some sun-like being you can’t look at except by prostrating yourself and glancing down under his floating feet, His Majesty can be talked to as a human equal.
In another key moment that weekend, thirty-six-year-old lawyer and protest leader Arnon Nampa confessed to the crowd that he simply couldn’t dare imagine a Republic of Thailand because the fear of fatal punishment was just so deeply ingrained in him. (The country’s dim legacy of social and quasi-legal persecution of those deemed ungrateful to the monarch began in absolutist Siam, where commoner and royal critics of various political leanings experienced incarceration or exile. Under the contemporary revival of absolutism, at least nine dissidents who fled the country after the 2014 coup have been disappeared.) Arnon’s fears were not entirely misplaced: this is the man who on August 3 bravely opened the floodgates of straightforward public criticism of the monarchy and was jailed as a result. But, he acknowledged in his speech, younger people no longer grow up with that fear. At a rally outside Bangkok, he said, a ninth-grade student asked him how to change the country to be like France. That student was a girl, he added.
With the ceiling of acceptable criticism blown off, language has taken on a particularly charged political power.
It may not be so surprising in the age of social media that more and more teenagers are becoming politically aware early on—and equipped, as a result, with a trenchant political language to express their disaffection. The instigators are only getting younger, the leaders less dominated by men. What’s more remarkable is that the political awareness incubated in virtual communities has successfully translated into civic participation in the school cafeteria and in the streets. A Bangkok-based schoolteacher told me that in her secondary public school (grades seven to twelve) the most active campaigners for democracy—the ones distributing anti-dictatorship protest paraphernalia as well as urging others to join in the fight for school-specific human rights demands to stop teachers’ invasive and obsessive disciplining over every small nicety of their clothing and appearance—are mostly eighth-grade girls.
The schoolgirls of RN Revolution might be outliers in their outspoken rejection of the monarchy, but they are not exceptional at all in their horizontal organization and what Margaret Mead called prefigurative culture, in which older age is no guarantee of greater power or wisdom. Their first representative on stage, who spoke shyly about educational inequality, wore a middle school uniform; those holding signs in the photo all wore high school uniforms. The egalitarian ethos of these local networks allows for open and mutual learning in interactions between genders and between generations. A feminist organizer can now call out a peer who made a misogynistic remark on the same stage. A non-binary newbie from the suburbs of Bangkok schooled in “woke” Twitter can now learn endurance and safety tips from a young-at-heart Red Shirt auntie trucking from the provinces.
• • •
One may wonder whether movement leaders’ professed faith in constitutional monarchy is genuine, or whether it is instead more of a strategic veil over their deeper republican aspirations. Indeed, ultraroyalist critics accuse their speeches of duplicity: of hiding behind the name of democracy just so they can tear down the monarchy. This Thai-style McCarthyism has been the go-to tactic since the beginning of the Cold War for any smear campaign—supplying an easy formula for demonizing political opponents, dissolving political parties, demolishing elected governments, and ultimately undermining representative democracy.
The hard fact is that the monarchy’s undoing comes from inside the house. Vajiralongkorn’s actions have become increasingly hard to defend even to the monarchy’s die-hard, born-again supporters.
This legacy is very much alive today. In September a complaint to the Constitutional Court was approved for consideration, alleging that speeches made by Arnon, Panusaya, and another protest leader in August amount to an unconstitutional attempt to abolish the country’s “democracy with the king as head of state”—the phrasing pro-democracy activists have been compelled to repeat ad nauseum for fear of being construed as communists if they fail to include the deferential gesture to the king. Anticipating the Court’s ruling of this complaint, Arnon prophesied on stage: “If you judge what we’re doing to be monarchical reform, it will be so. But if you judge what we’re doing to be abolition, it will be so as well. The pen is in your hand. You choose the direction this country takes.” This challenge to the Court judges, who literally rule “in the name of the king,” might as well apply to the man himself.
The hard fact is that the monarchy’s undoing comes from inside the house. Vajiralongkorn’s actions have become increasingly hard to defend even to the monarchy’s die-hard, born-again supporters. Protest leaders rightly state that the only way to restore dignity to the king is for the law to apply to him. The king has not responded. In this ambiguous silence, which might portend another round either of royally endorsed bullets or of royally bestowed democracy, he made a bizarre gesture. As if to mock the calls for equal human dignity before the law, the Department of Corrections launched a royally endorsed rehabilitation program for prisoners that prominently features cartoon drawings glorifying agricultural work and pastoral romance made by the king himself.
Cartoons drawn by King Vajiralongkorn that accompany the rehabilitation program "Project under the Royal Patronage of His Majesty the King 'Koke Nong Na - Symbol of Compassion and Hope," launched nationwide since late August for each province's mass of prisoners royally pardoned on the occasion of His Majesty's 68th birthday on July 28, 2020. The cartoons are dated, from left to right, 19 Aug 63, 17 Aug 63, and 15 Aug 63. (63 is short for 2563, the current Buddhist year in Thailand.) The "Khok Nong Na Model," taking inspiration from King Bhumibol's version of integrated farming, prescribes a sustainable way of pastoral life. The three Thai words refer to a wooded knoll, a body of water, and a rice paddy, respectively. Image: Khaosod Online
“We are farmers together,” declares one of the three drawings. “Happy farmers,” adds another. Coincidentally, one of the royally pardoned prisoners enrolled in this two-week rehabilitation program is a thirty-five-year-old single mother of two who served five years and seven months for a lèse-majesté conviction over seven Facebook posts by an account she says was not hers. She was originally sentenced to fifty-six years for seven counts of the violation, but the figure dropped to half that due to a confession she made under duress. Because of her “excellent” behavior as an inmate, she has been granted a royal pardon. Mercy here is a cheap yet costly kind of exchange: first you give me a confession to a crime you may not have committed against my father, then I’ll reduce your sentence. And before you leave these prison walls, you’ll be taught how to be a farmer so you’ll be happy and less likely to re-offend. You’re welcome.
Leaders are careful to frame their demands in terms of monarchical reform rather than anti-monarchical revolution. But in effect the two are joined in an ultimatum to the king: either you rehabilitate yourself, or your entire establishment will fall out of the people’s good graces forever.
But fewer and fewer Thai people feel thankful, or even the urge to feign thankfulness. Though the movement’s core leaders are careful to frame their demands in terms of monarchical reform rather than anti-monarchical revolution, in effect the two are joined in the ultimatum to the king: either you rehabilitate yourself, Your Majesty, or your entire establishment will fall out of the people’s good graces forever. As Thomas Paine wrote in Common Sense, the 1776 pamphlet currently circulating in Thai translation: “in absolute governments the King is law, but in free countries the law ought to be King, and there ought to be no other.” Thailand, which in one sense means “the land of the free,” will sooner rather than later have to reckon with itself as a Kingdom. Is it really possible, as Hegel believed, for our Oriental despotism—where only One is free—to evolve into a true monarchy in which All are free? In the young masses’ rallying cry of #ให้มันจบที่รุ่นเรา (“let it end in our generation”) there is a sense—this is the last straw—the English doesn’t quite capture. Whatever “it” is, protesters are not simply “letting” it end at whatever time it wishes. The fearful wait-and-see attitude toward the new reign that pervaded Thailand in the aftermath of Bhumibol’s death four years ago has been superseded by a decisive impatience: we’re sick of waiting; we’ve seen enough; let’s get it over with now.
What’s the task of this “generation” of ours? Walter Benjamin wrote of the possibility of historical redemption: “Like every generation that preceded us, we have been endowed with a weak Messianic power, a power to which the past has a claim. That claim cannot be settled cheaply.” This self-aware generation of Thai citizens is trying to settle the claim of democracy fighters who came before them, an obligation that can be satisfied neither by cheap gestures of solidarity nor by cheap concessions from the powers that be. Whatever the outcome of this fight, it won’t be cheap.
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