There is something noble and inspiring about masses of people rising up to demand democracy. Such movements may not always succeed in ushering in better government — witness Hong Kong, or the Arab Spring — but even when they do not, they deliver an indelible message that elemental freedoms cannot be forever denied.
The mass protests that have roiled Thailand for almost five months have not yet achieved the goals summed up by their slogan, “Resign, Rewrite, Reform” — the resignation of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, a former army chief and an architect of a coup in 2014, the rewriting of the constitution he imposed and perhaps most notably, a check on the powers and privileges of a wayward king when even modest criticism of the monarchy can result in a long prison term.
The youth-led demonstrations, which often bring tens of thousands of people into the streets, have persisted week by week. They began over the summer as a student protest against the strict, military-style regimentation in Thai schools, an aspect of a broad effort by the powerful military-royalist ruling establishment to control and coerce the population. As the protests grew, their goals expanded into broad demands for true democracy, which has eluded Thailand despite repeated uprisings. Since it ended absolute monarchy in 1932, the country has known a dozen successful military coups, 20 constitutions and many brutal crackdowns.
Another coup is always possible in the current wave of unrest. If it followed past practice, the military would declare that it has acted to restore order, followed by a rigged election that results in another government determined to maintain the alliance of an enormously wealthy military establishment, a hugely wealthy 1 percent and an ultrawealthy king.
The challenge to that last establishment, the monarchy, has been the most conspicuous and notable feature of the protests. A legally mandated reverence for the king has long been a fundamental pillar of Thai society, with the threat of long prison terms for anyone who “defames, insults or threatens the king, queen, heir-apparent or regent.” The last king, Bhumibol Adulyadej, who ruled for more than 70 years until his death in 2016, was genuinely admired, and so was never a major target of political protests. His 68-year-old successor is a different story.
A playboy who lives most of the time in high luxury in Bavaria, King Maha Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun has strengthened his power by bringing the huge wealth of the crown and key army units under his direct control. More and more, he has become the target of the continuing demonstrations, in which irreverence has been a central theme. Signs reading “How is the weather in Germany?,” referring to the king’s foreign haven, have been common. At a recent demonstration the throng likened him to a giant monitor lizard, one of the worst insults in Thailand, and graffiti in Bangkok’s city center have included a spray-painted sign reading, “The king is dead,” and references to his sexual activities.
The authorities finally struck back on Tuesday, summoning a dozen leaders of the protest movement — including Parit Chiwarak, commonly known as Penguin — to face charges under the dreaded Section 112 of the criminal code, the lèse-majesté laws that could land them in prison for up to 15 years. The charges were made hours before a rally in Bangkok on Wednesday, held outside a bank whose biggest shareholder is the king. Protesters there demanded that he return his fortune to the people. As is typical for the demonstrations, Mr. Parit appeared dressed as a yellow duck, evoking the image of large inflatable rubber duckies that have become a protest symbol. “I am not scared,” he declared.
What comes next is anybody’s guess, but Thailand’s military-royalist rulers are not likely to easily surrender any wealth or power. The formidable military establishment, which includes 1,600 generals and has few outside threats to contend with, has vast business holdings and is the largest landowner in Thailand. It appoints all 250 members of the Senate, uses conscription to imbue youths with martial traditions and has its own internal security apparatus, which it uses to bring in dissenters by the thousands for “attitude adjustment” sessions. The army has not been reluctant to use gunfire against protesters in the past.
Yet as with Humpty Dumpty, it is hard to see how all the king’s men can put the untouchable monarchy back together again. That is a message democratic leaders of the world — and especially the United States, which has a long and multifaceted diplomatic, security and commercial relationship with Thailand — should strongly reinforce by urging Prime Minister Prayuth and the generals to avoid a needless crackdown, and instead to heed their young people and undertake long-overdue reforms.