The protesters, bleary-eyed from sleeplessness but flush with adrenaline, chanted “Down with feudalism, long live the people!” as they moved straight for the Grand Palace.
It was early on September 20 and Panusaya Sithijirawattanakul, a leader of a radical faction of students from Thailand’s Thammasat University, was demanding to see a representative of the king’s privy council that morning. She dismounted the truck she was standing on and walked towards the palace, which was guarded by hundreds of police.
King Maha Vajiralongkorn, or Rama X, lives mostly in Bavaria, Germany, and had only been back in Bangkok briefly during this pandemic year. The royal flag, flown when the monarch is presiding at home, was up, although the king — as has been the case for most of 2020 — was not in.
Panusaya, 22, who goes by the nickname Rung (“rainbow”), carried a list of 10 demands to reform the monarchy, the institution at the pinnacle of Thailand’s political order. These included cutting royal budgets and abolishing the lèse-majesté or royal insult law that jails those convicted of defaming the royal family for up to 15 years. She has become one of the best-known faces of a movement with many leaders; one cartoon showed her standing on a truck, wielding a flame-throwing guitar.
The rally began with the kind of irreverent festival antics typical of Thailand’s past four months of near-daily protests. A boy posed in a midriff-baring crop top — a garment associated with the king, who has been photographed wearing them in Germany — as a girl mock-venerated him in the ritual prostration Thais adopt at royal audiences. Jutatip “Ua” Sirikhan, the leader of the Thai Students’ Union, stood outside Thammasat selling LOVE CAT HATE COUP T-shirts — a reference to the military’s dozen seizures of power over the past century.
But proceedings turned more serious around 11pm, when Rung took the stage. “My name is Panusaya Sithijirawattanakul,” she said, addressing Vajiralongkorn directly and startling listeners by dispensing with the phraseology Thais must use when speaking to the king. “I’m one of the people you might see as mere dust under your feet. I’d like to tell you that dust like us has rights and voices too.”
Without naming the king, Arnon Nampa, another protest leader, recounted a list of questions for him, including a request to cut royal spending at a time when some Thais were skipping meals. “Don’t you see the country is suffering?” he asked.
After the students left the stage, the sound of power tools was heard. By morning, a plaque bearing the date September 20 had been planted in Sanam Luang (Royal Ground), a former public plaza alongside the palace used mostly for events honouring Thailand’s powerful monarchy. The plaque bore the bold and, to many Thais, revolutionary, if not seditious, declaration that “Thailand belongs to the people, not the king, as they deceived us”. Many Thai media declined to translate the inscription in full for fear of breaking the law.
That morning, Rung presented the students’ demands to Bangkok’s chief of metropolitan police, then turned to the crowd and posed for pictures, her fingers raised in the protesters’ now famous three-fingered salute. “We have won,” Arnon declared. “We have won.”
This is not a story about Thailand’s multibillionaire king, though he increasingly sits at the centre of it. It is about the young people — or as they call themselves, with a sense of their place in history, “The People” — who are challenging the kingdom’s constitutional order and the culture of unquestioned reverence for the monarchy. Their fight for democratic rights against forbidding odds is being followed closely at home and abroad.
With a remarkable degree of self-possession — and courage, given the threats of imprisonment or death that royal critics face — they are questioning everything they have been taught in school. Their anthem is “Do You Hear the People Sing?” from the musical Les Misérables, which has the refrain: “A people who will not be slaves again.”
Thailand’s student movement began coalescing in July around a pro-democracy group called Free Youth, which demanded Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha resign. As the protests grew, it aligned itself with the People’s Party (later The People) and began making further demands, most notably limits on the power of the king, something that was previously unthinkable.
The students see themselves as the heirs to generations of Thai leftists who have fought the kingdom’s illiberal order for the past century. But this is a movement unlike any Thailand has seen before.
Young people with ideas about upending the country’s feudal hierarchy are a recurring theme in Thailand. In 1932, King Prajadhipok, Vajiralongkorn’s great-uncle, faced an uprising by officers and civil servants, who imposed a constitution on him. This revolt remains the historical touchstone for the new generation of protesters. A few years later, the king’s assets and land were put in the care of the Crown Property Bureau (CPB), essentially Thailand’s sovereign wealth fund.
But from that low point, Vajiralongkorn’s father, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, built back the monarchy’s power and public esteem, with the help of a powerful military and the support of the Americans, who saw his country as an important anti-communist regional ally.
The cultish, gilded portraits of royal family members on Thai roadsides and in buildings proliferated during Bhumibol’s 70-year reign, which ended with his death in 2016. So did the strengthening of laws shielding the family from criticism, most notoriously the lèse-majesté law.
Thailand has been run by a triumvirate of power — palace, governments and the military — throughout its modern history. Some Thais add as a fourth pillar the prodigious Chinese-Thai family conglomerates that have grown rich and built the economy in symbiosis with the royal house. When things get out of hand, the military steps in, as happened in 2014 when Prayuth, then army chief, led a coup against populist Yingluck Shinawatra’s elected government. Afterwards, the regime sent scores of dissidents to “attitude adjustment” sessions, and some fled into exile.
When Vajiralongkorn took the throne in 2016, he set about further strengthening the trappings of royal power even as he lived abroad. In 2017 he took ownership of the CPB’s assets, company shares and land worth more than $40bn; last year he assumed command over two army regiments. In 2019, he was crowned Rama X in a lavish ceremony and borne on a gilded palanquin through Bangkok.
But young Thais, surfing the web and already questioning the order of things, saw a very different image of their king outside his country, where he spent most of his time in a villa near Munich and more recently in an Alpine hotel. They shared candid photos showing the king and his household relaxing in crop tops or other informal dress.
“From being a taboo subject, the monarchy is now front and centre,” Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political scientist at Chulalongkorn University, tells me. “The students at minimum succeeded in making the monarchy a policy issue for discussion and debate.” Under Bhumibol, he adds, “this would not have happened”.
The students have taken pains to keep the protests peaceful, another departure from past Thai political unrest that claimed lives. But they remain unrepentant in targeting the king, as well as a government they see as doing its master’s bidding.
“If a dog in a nearby house annoys you because it keeps barking, would you go out and fight the dog and tell it to stop barking?” protest organiser Parit “Penguin” Chiwarak asked me. “Or would you go out and talk to the owner of the dog to make it stop barking?”
Penguin’s formative moment in activism — and his first brush with police — came in 2018. Dressed as a worker, he approached then-military junta leader Prayuth at a May Day event, gave him a polite clasped-hands wai greeting, and said: “Please resign.” Police dragged him away and kept him for several hours.
Most of the protest leaders are in their teens and twenties (Penguin is 22), female and/or LGBT+, a departure for an arch-conservative society controlled comfortably — or so it seemed until recently — by old men. Schoolchildren, including a group called Bad Students, have joined protests and scandalised adults by raising three fingers at school.
“I love this country despite the fact that there are so many things that suck,” Penguin tells me in a café on Thammasat’s campus, where he speaks of Thailand’s history, which he loves to riff on, its temples, its palaces and its food. “It’s still my home.”
He remembers studying the French revolution in grade 10, aged about 16, and being captivated by the motto Liberté, égalité, fraternité. He also clashed with a teacher who was extolling the “sufficiency economy”, a rural development scheme championed by Bhumibol. “Being an agrarian country that produces raw materials, you get oppressed,” he told her. The teacher told him he had a “rotten heart”.
After Vajiralongkorn took the throne, monuments and plaques commemorating the events of 1932 began to disappear, which progressive Thais took as a sign their country was tipping back toward absolutism. The economy, after booming in the 1980s and 1990s, grew at one of the slowest rates in south-east Asia, thanks in part to its underperforming schools, which have a better record of enforcing haircut rules than excelling on tests.
Thais vented freely about this at home and online with their peers elsewhere in Asia. “This generation grew up with parents who were a lot more liberal,” says Kanokrat Lertchoosakul, a Chulalongkorn University assistant professor who has surveyed more than 150 young people involved in the protests. “Debate within the family is very widespread.”
Although Vajiralongkorn assented to an election last year, it was held under a constitution that weakened opposition parties and paved the way for Prayuth to install himself as prime minister. Ahead of the vote, he vetoed a run for office by his oldest sister, Ubolratana Rajakanya. On the eve of the election, the king urged Thais to “support good people” — widely understood as an intervention by an ostensibly apolitical sovereign against pro-democracy parties.
Despite this, Future Forward, a party promising to eject the military from politics and build a more modern Thailand, still managed to come in third, thanks to support from many of the seven million eligible first-time voters. But the regime mounted a raft of legal cases against the party and in February a court dissolved it, angering the young Thais who had voted for it.
Among them were two student activists, Tattep “Ford” Ruangprapaikitseree and his boyfriend Panumas “James” Singprom, who joined in flash-mob protests that began late last year in support of Future Forward. They also formed Free Youth with a third friend, holding their first meeting at a McDonald’s near Thammasat’s suburban Rangsit campus. “I wanted to make young people understand what was going on and what the problems in Thailand are: first, capitalism; second, feudalism; third, all the generals,” Ford says.
Ford grew up with parents who struggled to get by selling clothing and essentials. As a first-year politics student on scholarship at Chulalongkorn, he was part of a group that invited Hong Kong activist Joshua Wong to give a talk, only for Thailand to refuse Wong’s entry at China’s request. “I felt I could no longer be on the sidelines,” he said. “I had to be in the game.”
By the middle of the year, Free Youth set three demands: Prayuth’s resignation, the writing of a new constitution and an end to the harassment of dissenters. Their goal, student union leader Ua told me, was to make Thailand a “fully democratic country”.
Thailand’s young people were further shocked and angered by the disappearance in June of Wanchalearm Satsaksit, a Thai human rights and LGBT+ activist and a critic of the military regime, who was bundled into a car by unknown men in Cambodia and has not been seen since. #savewanchalerm began to circulate on Twitter. Pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong and Taiwan including Wong cheered them on.
Free Youth held their first big event on July 18 at Bangkok’s Democracy Monument, which commemorates the 1932 uprising. It attracted about 2,500 people and, over the next few weeks, the crowds kept growing. Ua, a third-year Thammasat student who aspires to be a politician, helped organise the event’s stage, security and logistics amid threats that the police would shut the protest down. “When we were growing up, we saw things like the kidnapping of people who spoke out against the government,” she tells me soon after. “My goal is to make the country fully democratic and try to support other things like human rights.”
Elsewhere, a still more radical vision of confronting royal power directly was incubating. Arnon, a veteran human-rights lawyer who, at 36, is older than most other protest leaders, first broke the taboo on criticising the king at a small rally in Bangkok on August 3, when he compared him to the Harry Potter villain Voldemort. “Nobody actually dares mention Voldemort, despite the fact that he’s behind all the evil things going on,” Arnon told me in early August. When I interviewed him, he was coming from court, where he is helping the defence in a long-running lèse-majesté case against a man who “insulted” Bhumibol’s dog.
A week later, ahead of a rally at Rangsit, Penguin and another student, taking inspiration from the writings of Somsak Jeamteerasakul, an academic who fled to Paris after the 2014 coup, drafted the 10 demands for reforming the monarchy at a student office on campus.
In a Thai context, these were extraordinary: in addition to revoking lèse-majesté, the proposals called for cutting the palace’s budget, separating the king’s personal assets from the CPB’s, and ending education that “excessively and one-sidedly glorifies the monarchy”. They also stated: “The king must not endorse any coups.”
“That’s harsh!” Rung told Penguin when she saw it. But she volunteered to read the demands out before a crowd of 10,000 at the rally. Backlit and wearing a red blouse, she threw the pages up in the air when she was done.
If leftwing Thais consider Rung a heroine, she is the accidental kind. The daughter of a middle-class family, she says she studied sociology because she did not have good enough grades to read political science. At Thammasat, she gravitated to the Dome Revolution party, a student union group where discussion of politics and the monarchy was frank. “I don’t know how far this is going to go, how many years, but in the end this movement will succeed,” Rung said in August. “The monarchy is too old to function in this world.”
Soon after the Rangsit rally, Prayuth warned the students not to “touch” the monarchy, setting the regime’s red line, which remains in place. His government also sent takedown requests to Facebook, Twitter and Google, asking them to block posts deemed anti-monarchy within Thailand. Facebook geo-blocked the Royalist Marketplace, an online news, gossip and comment site curated by Japan-based dissident Pavin Chachavalpongpun. Within a day, he had moved it to a new location and more than two million people have now signed up to read it.
LGBT+ youth were early and enthusiastic supporters of the rallies. Many Thais show grudging, bemused tolerance toward queer people, but the country does not give them full equal marriage, adoption or inheritance rights or the right to change gender on documents.
“Being LGBTQ you won’t get killed, you won’t get physically attacked or face hate crimes, but you don’t have an identity,” says Penguin, who is gay. “It’s a social class. If you are transgender, it’s your duty to be a clown.”
Despite the success of their rallies, the students were bickering. Some of the Free Youth leaders told me they thought the movement should remain focused on ousting Prayuth rather than targeting the king. They said the 10 demands amounted to putting the cart before the horse, and that students should instead push for a democratic constitution, then allow a new parliament to start tackling royal reforms.
Separately Penguin, Arnon and some of the other male leaders were coming under criticism from female activists for remarks they deemed sexist or insensitive, including Penguin’s response to a sexual assault allegation involving a Dome Revolution member at Thammasat.
Meanwhile the protests continued to swell in size, reaching their peak at Sanam Luang the night before the People’s Plaque was laid, when tens of thousands attended. (Thai police do not provide official estimates.)
Arnon tells me this was evidence that the calls for reforming “the institution”, as Thais dub the monarchy, had traction. “On September 19 they knew the Thammasat group were organising the protest and would definitely talk about the monarchy, and they still came,” he says.
Authorities began piling criminal charges on the students, including sedition, apparently meting out the harshest treatment to the Thammasat group. Some turned their arrests into online events. Ua livestreamed hers on Facebook, wearing a black “FUCK PRAYUTH” T-shirt and reading aloud from 18th-century US revolutionary Thomas Paine’s Common Sense as she was arrested. Ford and James did a livestream from the back of a police car, speaking about politics and inequality as they drove through Bangkok. “It was as if we were lecturing police at the same time,” James recalls.
But the students’ demands were also expanding the acceptable parameters of public debate. Thai media are now reporting openly on their programme, including the 10 demands (though they mostly still avoid mentioning the king’s residence in Germany). Future Forward, now renamed Move Forward, used its seats on parliament’s budget committee to probe ballooning public spending on the royals, budgeted at 9bn baht (£224m) this year, including a fleet of 38 aircraft earmarked for royal family use.
The People’s Plaque was removed by police the night after Rung, Penguin and the others posed with their hands on it. But it has since resurfaced in 3D printed replicas, T-shirts, face masks and even cookies. Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, Future Forward’s former leader, says the students have done Thailand a service by addressing the monarchy, which he calls the “elephant in the room”. “No one wanted to be the first one to say it, to mention the elephant,” he says. “They are brave.”
Just after 5pm on October 14, a motorcade bearing Queen Suthida and Prince Dipangkorn, the potential heir to the throne, glided by Government House en route to present offerings at two temples. Pro-democracy protesters were gathered at the site ahead of a major rally.
As the Queen’s cream-coloured Rolls-Royce passed, according to camera footage, several raised the three-finger salute. Some chanted “pasii gu” — “my taxes” or, given the crude variant of the word “I” they used, “my fucking taxes”.
The Queen, a former Thai Airways flight attendant who holds the rank of general, came to no physical harm. But early the next day, Prayuth announced an emergency decree outlawing meetings of five or more people, and police dispersed protesters camped around Government House. The tactics were familiar, but what struck many Thais was a principal justification the prime minister used for the crackdown — “an action that had an impact on the royal motorcade”.
Police charged three people under Section 110 of the criminal code — “Violence to the Queen’s Liberty” — a crime so rarely tried that many Thais had not heard of it. Dozens of people, including Penguin and Rung, were arrested. Conspiracy theorists speculated the royal Rolls had been intentionally routed near the protesters to provoke confrontation and justify the crackdown.
But the emergency decree backfired. Protesters, learning from Hong Kong, began staging flash demonstrations on a daily basis, organised at short notice to circumvent police blockades or Bangkok transit shutdowns. Student leaders used code to tell protesters where to go: “Let’s get a new iPad” was a call to meet at Bangkok’s Ratchaprasong intersection, which has an Apple store. “Let’s go pray” meant gather near the Erawan Buddhist shrine. When Ford said he was going to “eat meatballs” one recent evening, it was code that a big protest was about to kick off (the protests are major magnets for food hawkers).
While protesters no longer had the stages, prepared speeches or photo opps of rallies like the ones at Sanam Luang, some brought amplifiers and people spoke spontaneously from the crowd. After police fired water cannons at a demonstration on October 16, protesters began wearing hard hats and using umbrellas to shield themselves.
If protesters were divided before on when or whether to criticise the king, the crackdown unified many. Chants insulting or attacking “Oh” (“royal son”) began to be heard, alongside the usual ones taunting “Tu” (Prayuth’s nickname).
Prayuth lifted the emergency order a week after it was imposed. One theory is he did so to allow counter-protests by royalist “yellow shirts”, who have made their presence known more in recent days. Rumours of a violent crackdown on the pro-democracy youth spread, with protection of the monarchy used as a pretext.
The fears, though entirely speculative, are not unfounded. In 1976, an imagined threat against then-Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn was used as justification for the gruesome slaughter of at least 46 people protesting on Thammasat’s campus against the return to Thailand of ex-military dictator Thanom Kittikachorn.
At least nine Thais in exile who criticised the monarchy or the military have disappeared since the 2014 coup. These included two activists who disappeared in Laos in December 2018 and whose bodies were later found on the Thai side of the Mekong river, handcuffed, disembowelled and stuffed with concrete.
The increasingly threadbare myth that the king sits above politics was punctured on October 24, when Vajiralongkorn and Suthida met and praised Thitiwat Tanagaroon, a royalist counter-protester at one of the youth rallies. “Very brave, very good, thank you,” said the king, as he and Suthida greeted well-wishers outside the Grand Palace. His remarks were shared widely online, stirring anger among progressive Thais, who took them as clear evidence their sovereign was taking sides.
Within a few days, the students on the streets had turned the king’s words into a taunting meme. On October 26, I watched as thousands of people gathered in Bangkok to march to the German embassy to confront Berlin, and the Thai public, with the fact that their king lives abroad.
A trans woman led cheers of “Very good! Very brave! Thank you!” punctuating each phrase with claps as a girl nearby did expressive arm gestures and people laughed. Protesters carried signs saying “Sehr mutig, sehr gut. Danke!” (the king’s words in German) and “Papa, komm bitte nach Hause” (Daddy, please come home). “This gathering has no leader,” a male protester on a truck told the crowd through a megaphone. “If anyone wants to talk about any issue, come forward!” The crowd chanted: “Everybody is a leader!”
When I began reporting this story in September, the students told me they expected to be arrested, but that new leaders would rise in their place. Rung told me she was prepared to die if need be.
By the time I finished, Rung, Penguin and Arnon were facing multiple criminal charges and prison time. The leaders who were still free were taking a more behind-the-scenes role, allowing speakers to step up as they wished. The student leaders, once split over whether and when to press for monarchy reforms, are now unified in demanding them.
The unrest is drawing more international attention than before — and it too is focusing on the king. In Germany’s Bundestag, foreign minister Heiko Maas said he was “keeping an eye on the activities of the Thai king while in Germany” and made it clear that Berlin did not want him conducting affairs of state while there. Questions about the king have begun to recur regularly at government press conferences in Berlin.
The US, Thailand’s main military ally, has urged peaceful protest and dialogue and debunked an online rumour that Washington was supporting the protests, but has mostly stayed silent. So has Japan, Thailand’s biggest foreign investor.
Rumours of a coup, which surface perennially in Bangkok, have grown acute in recent days, as have unconfirmed reports of back-channel talks between government and protesters. Yellow-shirt counter-protesters have begun to make their views known online and in person, accusing students of being “nation-haters”. Prayuth broached constitutional reform at a recent extraordinary session of parliament, but MPs spent much of the session vilifying the protesters. He also recently made a reference to “foreign interference” in Thailand, though he did not say by which country.
If the students have any reason to hope they might succeed where Hong Kong’s protesters failed, political scientist Thitinan points out, it is that Thailand does not have an outside power like China poised to crush them. And, say observers, given that some of the most fearless protesters have been teenagers, a new generation of dissenters is on the way. “The real change will come in the next two to three years, when these high-school kids enter university,” says Kanokrat, the Chulalongkorn researcher.
Meanwhile, the protest carnival rolls on. Outside the German embassy last week, where several thousand people gathered, youths commandeered a police truck to display T-shirts emblazoned with the People’s Plaque and the three-finger salute. As always, food vendors (who some Thais jokingly call the CIA because of their uncanny foreknowledge of protest sites) were there, selling sugar-cane juice and sausages. A quartet of drag queens danced in formation and people chanted “Prayuth, bastard”. The protest broke up by 10pm and the crowd dispersed in preparation for the next day.
John Reed is the FT’s Bangkok bureau chief. Additional reporting by Ryn Jirenuwat
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