After weeks of unrest, Thailand’s anti-government protesters aren’t backing down. More than 10,000 people surrounded the Victory Monument in Bangkok at one gathering over the weekend. Smaller protests were held throughout the country. The government has imposed a ban on assemblies of more than 10 people as well as a 6 p.m. curfew, attempted to ban the encrypted messaging app Telegram, and turned water cannons on the marchers, but it has done little to stop the movement.
If you only periodically follow Thai politics, these demonstrations may feel like déjà vu. With more than a dozen successful military coups over the last century—more than any other country—Thailand is very familiar with political turmoil, and mass street protests shutting down the streets of Bangkok have been common, particularly between 2006 and 2014. The cycle of conflict between political factions has seemed inescapable.
But there’s reason to think that these protests are different.
This round of protests began in late 2019 after the constitutional court disqualified opposition leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit as a member of parliament and banned his party. The movement died down in March, when the government imposed a state of emergency to control the coronavirus, but picked up again this fall, with marchers calling for reforms to the constitutions as well as the resignation of Prayut Chan-o-Cha, the former general who took power in a military coup and became prime minister in controversial elections last year.
The biggest difference in this round of protests from previous uprisings is that, for the first time, the opposition is directly confronting the country’s monarchy. In the past, the royal family has generally been able to stay above the fray. But on Oct. 14, marchers clashed with police while heckling King Maha Vajiralongkorn’s motorcade. (These motorcades, which require not only streets but pedestrian bridges that cross the motorcade route to close, are a major source of gridlock in Bangkok’s already traffic-clogged streets.) In early August, protesters held a Harry Potter–themed rally criticizing the king as “he who must not be named.”
The protesters are calling for limits to the king’s constitutional authority and a repeal of Thailand’s notoriously harsh lèse-majesté law, which can impose jail terms of up to 15 years for insulting the royal family. The broadly interpreted law has often been used by the government as a cudgel to criminalize political dissent.
Why go after the king now? One big reason is that Thais simply don’t like him as much as they did his father, Bhumibol Adulyadej, who ruled Thailand for 70 years until his death in 2016.
Because he was genuinely respected across Thailand’s political divide, Bhumibol could periodically intervene to resolve the previous political crises, more often than not siding with the military establishment—including in 2014 when he endorsed Prayuth as prime minister following the coup. It seems unlikely that that the current king could play a similar role this time, given that he’s one of the protesters’ main targets. He’s been silent so far. It doesn’t help his credibility that the king spends more time in Germany than he does in Thailand and that the international media is starting to dig into the sordid details of his lifestyle and $40 billion fortune.
“Public perception of the two kings is very different. One was respected and seen as having moral integrity. The other is seen as unscrupulous and unethical,” says Tamara Loos, professor of history and Thai studies at Cornell.
Public resentment has also been exacerbated by the pandemic. Unlike some other countries that have faced mass protests in recent weeks, Thailand has actually done an extraordinarily good job controlling the coronavirus, with only 59 deaths out of a population of almost 70 million. But the country’s economy—particularly the all-important tourist industry and the businesses that depend on it—is reeling. “To see that discrepancy between people whose incomes have been so harshly affected [by COVID] and a monarch who lives abroad quite lavishly and doesn’t seem to care about his population—that has to feed into the protests,” says Loos.
These latest protests are also made up of different people, with different motivations. Political factions have driven much of Thailand’s political turmoil in recent years, linked to the messy saga of populist tycoon-turned–Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was removed from power in a 2006 coup, and his sister Yingluck, who was removed in a 2014 coup. During those years, Thailand’s factions were identified by the colored T-shirts they wore at protests. Roughly speaking, the “Red Shirts” were primarily poorer, rural voters from northern Thailand who backed the Shinawatras. The “Yellow Shirts” were mostly middle-class urbanites who strongly supported the military and the political establishment.
While prominent Red Shirts have endorsed the protests this time around, they’re not the main force behind it. (However, the 2020 protests have borrowed the Red Shirts’ use of the three-fingered Hunger Games salute as a trademark.) The ban on Thanathorn may have kicked off the protests initially, but this is a decentralized movement, not closely tied to any political candidate. Many of those on the streets are of high school or college age.
“This is a new generation of protesters, and they grew up with a phone in their hands and access to platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok,” says Loos. “In the past the main media outlets were controlled by the army or Thai state authorities, so the government had much tighter control over the message. The protesters today are much more savvy about getting their message across.”
Unlike the Red Shirts, it appears to be a truly nationwide movement with significant participation by middle-class kids in Bangkok. And that could have an impact on how the government responds as the crisis continues: It’s a lot harder to back a harsh crackdown when your own kids and their friends are the ones on the streets.