Commentary. Regardless of what the short-term consequences of these protests will be, these slogans, which from one day to the next have become the new normal, represent an epochal change for the country.

In Thailand, the king has no clothes

This weekend, tens of thousands of people took to the streets in Bangkok to demand the resignation of General Prayuth Chan-o-Cha’s government, a new Constitution and legal, political, and economic reform of the Thai monarchy.

Starting in summer, when the mobilization took its first steps, the protest was mostly animated by students, organized through social media and focused on the production of memes and political performances aimed at criticizing the status quo.

Their generational anger, growing under the stranglehold of a military government that came to power through a coup d’état in 2014, ratified by an election of questionable legitimacy in 2019 and unable to respond to an economic crisis that was only worsened by COVID, was mostly directed against Prayuth and the legislative structure that had allowed him to take power.

Largely ignored by the government before, their demands began to change in August, when Panusaya Sithijirawattanakul, a 21-year-old student, read out, before a crowded square, a document destined to be a milestone in the history of the country.

“There was fear lurking inside me, deep fear of the consequences,” Panusaya told the BBC, thinking back to the moments before going on stage. “I knew my life would never be the same.” With those emotions raging inside her, Panusaya, in a confident voice, read out a series of unprecedented demands: removing the monarch’s legal immunity, eliminating the lèse majesté law (which punishes any criticism of the monarchy with 3 to 15 years in prison), cutting the cash, property and taxes funding to the monarchy, making its investments transparent and taxable, prohibiting members of the royal family from expressing political opinions, suspending all forms of monarchic propaganda, investigating the disappearance in recent years of various critics of the monarchy and making it illegal for the monarch to support a coup d’état.

She recalled nervously how worried she was about the reaction of the crowd that night. “If the people disagreed, it was over.”

A public declaration of this magnitude has not been seen in Thailand since the 1930s, when a group of young bureaucrats—whom the student movement is identifying as their forebears—had put an end to the absolute monarchy, with the approval of large portions of the military forces.

Today, however, the military have circled the wagons around the monarch, and they see the preservation of the latter’s power as indispensable for the maintenance of their own. Due to this shift and the legal consequences that criticism of the monarchy can bring, Panusaya’s fears seemed more than justified. Yet, they proved to be unfounded.

Instead of alienating supporters of the movement, the 10 demands galvanized it by broadening its base far beyond just students, attracting laborers, white-collar workers, groups from various generations and social classes, including some activists of the red shirts, a popular movement that had filled the streets in 2010 but remained largely dormant after the coup in 2014. On October 14, proof of this growth could be seen with tens of thousands of people protesting in front of the government building asking for the government’s resignation.

General Prayuth, determined to keep the protests in check without accepting the demands, responded the next day by declaring a state of emergency prohibiting any gathering of five or more people, arresting the leaders of the protest, including Panusaya, and threatening violent repression.

Despite the decree, the arrests and the intimidation techniques of the Prime Minister—who first hinted to the protesters on October 16 that everyone could die at any moment, asking them not to play around with Pra Yom (the divinity of death), and then attacked them with water cannons and tear gas—the protests didn’t just continue, but grew, becoming more radical and direct every day in their attacks on the monarch, who has now become, together with Prayuth, the main target of the protesters.

Seen from Italy, this might seem to be the obvious, and almost natural, conclusion of the last two decades of political struggle in Thailand, in which the Thai monarchy has always taken the military’s side in the struggle between democratic forces and authoritarian pressures.

However, in the Thai context, this is an epochal change, a sudden and very profound transformation to which many people find hard to accept. During the October 14 demonstrations, almost as if in a provocation, the royal family drove through the protesting crowds, and, for the first time in Thai history, a monarch’s yellow Rolls Royce was surrounded by a crowd shouting at him, insulting him and complaining that his car was paid for by their taxes.

The next day, during another protest held in violation of the state of emergency imposed by Prayuth, thousands of people continued to shout loud insults against the king in unison, slogans that embarrassed local journalists, who were forced to interrupt live feeds, record the same segments multiple times or delete their audio in an attempt not to spread these words further, afraid of being themselves accused of lèse majesté or sedition.

Regardless of what the short-term consequences of these protests will be, these slogans, which from one day to the next have become the new normal, represent an epochal change for the country: the surprising and sudden disintegration of monarchic hegemony, a political ideology that has dominated the country since the Cold War and that is now crumbling, just like the walls that stood as a symbol of that conflict—reminding us, if need be, that even the most stable-looking edifice can collapse at any moment.

(Author of La Fragilità del Potere: mobilità e mobilitazione a Bangkok (The Frailty of Power: Mobility and Mobilization in Bangkok), out in Italy on October 22, published by Meltemi)

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