Demonstrators walk past a portrait of Thai King Maha Vajiralongkorn during a protest demanding the resignation of Thailand's Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha, in Bangkok, Thailand, July 26, 2020 NTBScanpix/REUTERS/Jorge Silva
26 Aug 2020

At the Club: Understanding the protests in Thailand

If you want to keep an eye on the temperature of the rising political tensions in Thailand these days, stopping by the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand in Bangkok is a good place to start. The Club (known as the FCCT) has long been a venue for informed public discussion, though within the bounds set by the military. More recently, its program seemed to foreshadow the explosive acceleration in public demands for change that has occurred.

In late June this year, a panel of local activists, retired activists, university professors and public intellectuals met at the club to address “Issues in  Thai nationhood and history since 1932”, with the politically sensitive subtitle of “religion, justice and king”. It started safely enough with an analysis of socio-economic inequality and the rural-urban divide – a conventional framework for examining the remarkable rise to power of Thaksin Shinawatra after 2001, which polarized and politicized these differences. Two military coups, political instability, and violent street clashes followed until the military consolidated its power after the 2014 coup.

Protests continued in more subdued forms, however. Two years later King Bhumipol died, and with him the aura of moral authority that had legitimized the established social order as well as successive military coups. The road was cleared for more direct scrutiny of the monarchy, especially as the behavior of the new King attracted increasing criticism. It was fitting, then, that the star guest of a panel discussion in the press club in June this year was Sulak Sivaraksa.

The road was cleared for more direct scrutiny of the monarchy, especially as the behavior of the new King attracted increasing criticism.

Sulak is an old fighter. Social standing as a Buddhist activist and public intellectual has only partly protected his criticism of the Palace and its alliance with the military. Charged and arrested four times under Thailand’s infamous lèse majesté law, he has also spent time in self-imposed exile.

By now 88 years old, Sulak wore a grim expression during the entire June meeting. He spoke in short but pointed sentences, some so critical of the present King that the young translator practically choked.  No need to spell out the specifics: as increasingly known at home and abroad, the new King was by a large margin transgressing the boundaries of morality, greed and political prudence generally observed by kings in modern Thai history.

Sulak punctuated his remarks by tapping the floor with a thick walking stick. This was no ordinary stick. It had belonged to Pridi, who left it behind when he fled Thailand in 1947. “With this stick, Sulak said, “I cannot go wrong”.

Statesman and social reformer, Pridi Phanomyong co-authored the 1932 constitution that changed Thailand from an absolute to a constitutional monarchy. He also launched a socialist plan for economic reform.  While this gave him many enemies, his downfall was brought about by a peculiar nexus between the Palace and the military. His rivals in the military accused Pridi of being complicit in the still unexplained death of King Ananda in 1946. Pridi fled the country, remaining in exile in France until his death in 1983.

To whom will Sulak give Pridi’s walking stick? There are many candidates. The dam burst just weeks later, in early August this year. Staging public meetings, students and other activists demanded reforms of the monarchy in bold and direct terms virtually unimaginable by Thai standards. The Manifesto of 10 August called for the king to be above politics and become a ceremonial head of state, further censoring the new King for transferring Crown Property worth billions of dollars into his personal account, and for taking direct command of military units. New and broad waves of protests followed. Some groups prioritize parliamentary action for general constitutional reform, while others emphasize socio-economic change. All say they are in this together. This is probably true in a general sense—at least they all risk jail sentences. Some activists behind the demands for reform of the monarchy have been charged with sedition; others face lèse majesté charges.

To whom will Sulak give Pridi’s walking stick? There are many candidates. 

The law exemplifies the mutually beneficial relationship between the Palace and the military. Here is how it slugged an activist from Thailand’s Northeast region, Jatupat Boonpattararaksa, nicknamed Pai Dao Din. Pai also appeared at a recent press club panel. Working with poor farmers in a generally disadvantaged region of the country, Pai engages more broadly as well and has joined protests after the 2014 military coup. When the head of the junta once came to speak, he and a couple of friends stood up and tore off their shirts to reveal T-shirts underneath with “No More Coups” blazing across the front. He later was charged with lèse majesté for circulating a BBC story about the present King. The article had also been shared by some 20 000 others. Pai, however, got two-and-a half years in prison.

The broader context for the present wave of protests was outlined at the same press club meeting by noted author and scholar of Thai history, Chris Baker. What we witness now are the most recent manifestations of the collision of two incompatible theories of sovereignty – the classic Thai theory of monarchy, which invests absolute sovereignty in the monarch by virtue of his moral authority, and a classic theory of democracy which invests absolute sovereignty in the people as a matter of natural law. Clashes between the two theories have shaped Thai political development since 1910. In some periods, the space for a democratic, constitutional monarchy has expanded; at other times it has contracted as the king and the military have increased their power. The moral authority exercised by the late King Bhumipol masked periods of democratic retreat during his long reign.

Clashes between the two theories have shaped Thai political development since 1910.

With the new King on the throne, the mask is gone. A new phase in the contestation is on, with much speculation about the outcomes. Baker, the historian, does not doubt the outcome in the long run. “Those who fail to talk about the demands raised by the protesters will find themselves on the wrong side of history”, he warned.


Blog post by Astri Suhrke,  CMI Senior researcher emerita, August 25, 2020.