The leaders of the Thai military royal complex are growing restless. The attempt to satisfy the demands of the population for a return to democracy through a militarily controlled facsimile has failed. Thailand's students and other young people have stood up and are demanding real democratic reforms, including popular control over the previously untouchable monarchy.
Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha, the clownish but arrogant general who took power six years ago, has dropped his right to stay with the demonstrators. After refusing to resign and using the appointed Senate to thwart proposals for constitutional reform, he blamed pro-democracy activists for his own actions, claiming that "the government had made an uncomplicated and serious attempt to resolve it ". On the spot, with protesters harassed, beaten and arrested, the government doesn't look very serious.
In the face of surprisingly determined demonstrators, he threatened: "The government and the security agencies concerned must improve our measures by enforcing all relevant laws against demonstrators who break the law or violate the rights and freedoms of other citizens." The fact that these laws were passed to enforce military rule remained unspoken. His final step was to charge a dozen protest leaders with lese majesty.
This is the first time in two years that the government is invoking the draconian penalty for criticizing the monarchy. The prosecution, often used by the junta for political purposes, is said to undermine efforts to challenge King Maha Vajiralongkorn. The longtime Crown Prince, who succeeded his father in 2016, was officially crowned last year and now spends much of his time in Germany with a sizeable harem. The federal government is obviously upset, but says no laws appear to have been violated.
His father was loved by the public; Vajiralong grain is not. After his coronation, he called for constitutional amendments to strengthen his personal authority, took control of a few favorite regiments of the Army, and took over approximately $ 30 billion of royal assets from the state. His miniature poodle, Fufu, was an Air Marshal in the Royal Thai Air Force before she died in 2015. He anointed a Royal Noble Consort, a royal office occupied for the first time in a century, dismissed it, and then restored it. And apart from his personal failings, he is seen as an ally of the military, which has blocked all reforms.
The student's challenge against monarchical abuses broke the greatest political taboo in Thailand. Unfortunately, this is likely to become the pretext for another formal or informal coup that will renew military rule.
The army has a long tradition of intervening in Thai politics. In 1932 a coup advanced democracy by overthrowing what was once an absolute monarchy. But since then the military has routinely imposed authoritarian rule and carried out 12 coups. The final round, represented by Prayuth, was a direct attack on the development of more democratic, even more populist, politics.
Prayuth, who took power in a military-led coup in 2014, has shown the narcissistic tendencies so dramatically displayed by outgoing US President Donald Trump. Despite claims of dictatorial powers, the Thai general whined, whined and whined. The media, he complained, "made me lose my manners and ruin my image as a leader." Although the lack of armed resistance enabled the military to avoid bloodshed, the sensitive dictator once threatened to shoot journalists – and no one was sure he was joking. The junta even borrowed from Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution and called people to "support adjustment meetings" at military bases, but without mobs barking for blood.
Prayuth drafted a constitution that only created a false democracy and ensured the continued rule of the military. He then arrested anyone who opposed his consent and made public consent the only way out of formal dictatorship, stating that rejecting it would extend the junta's rule.
Elections were held in March 2019, and nominally civilian institutions met the military's expectations by disqualifying opposition candidates and parties and manipulating the voting results. Most dramatically, the regime persecuted young billionaire Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit and banned his youth-oriented Future Forward party, which landed in third place, while explicitly challenging the military and calling for cuts in the military budget. Relying on 250 junta-appointed Senate members, Prayuth, the generalissimo, became Prime Minister despite previously promising to retire after democracy was restored.
Today's demonstrators have continued in the face of increasingly harsh repression. The state of emergency has been declared. Public gatherings were banned. Numerous protest leaders were arrested. Public transport has been closed. The increasingly desperate authorities even threatened to jail anyone who visited an opposition website or posted a protest selfie.
But the demonstrations continued, attracting an increasingly broad segment of Thai society, and generating increasing excitement outside of Bangkok as well as greater attention abroad. The government recently blocked part of the city with shipping containers to block protesters. The latter avoided this by simply moving the location of the rally. And Prime Minister Prayuth returned to the Generalissimo, threatening tougher measures and launching prosecutions against protest leaders.
The final step is an act of desperation. Earlier this year, Prayuth said the government did not apply the law "because the king was kind enough to instruct that it should not be applied". However, this indulgence by the king, government, or both is obviously over.
Yet recently, a large crowd has gathered at Siam Commercial Bank, in which the King is the largest shareholder. The protest highlighted demands that the king hand over to the public the billions that finance his luxurious and unrestrained lifestyle. (Even the British and Saudi kings do not have public consorts offices.) One of the protesters summoned on lese majesty, Parit Chiwarak, told the New York Times: “I am not afraid. I worry more about the country if they still use these 112 (Punishing the Majesty's Crimes) in such a policy. This will cause the monarchy to deteriorate further. "
Indeed, public dissonance is increasing in several ways. The king has become the target of hostile graffiti that would have been inconceivable against his father. More and more Thais refuse to stand when the royal anthem is played, as it does before movies and sporting events. The revival of a widely hated tool against peaceful protesters is likely to reinforce belief that the junta and monarchy have merged into a single oppressor. It will increase public support for protesters calling for resignation, rewriting, reform – ousting Prayuth, restoring the junta-friendly constitution, and creating a genuine constitutional monarchy.
No doubt the regime hopes the protests will ease, but so far the youth movement has shown extraordinary commitment and resilience, and new leaders have emerged as old ones have been arrested. As the suppression increases, so do the demands of the demonstrators. A debate by the rigged parliament over constitutional reform brought nothing but the failure of military rule to satisfy the people's democratic aspirations. Even another election would solve little, as the public knows that the system was developed with the express aim of maintaining military rule. In short, Prayuth has failed both as a generalissimo and as a politician, leaving a mess that his uniformed counterparts may consider clean.
Which leaves another raid and a possible full blown coup as the most likely option. Tightened tactics against protests and wider law enforcement. Abandonment of the pretext of parliamentary rule. And almost certainly the defenestration of Prayuth, whose power base within the army has shrunk and offers little satisfaction to its critics in the opposition and the military alike.
The Trump administration would do nothing but give the new strong man a friendly welcome. However, the Biden team, which has shown its commitment to promoting human rights, will soon take the lead. If there is a coup, what then?
America's influence is limited: governments seldom degrade in response to foreign, even US, criticism. Washington could press for the restoration of democracy while restricting arms sales and military cooperation. It wouldn't be free. Prayuth was unhappy with criticism from the Obama administration and improved relations with China, but the economy definitely made such a move likely. A compromise between promoting the values of freedom and tightening security relationships is inevitable. The cost seems moderate today: Bangkok was a key US ally during the Vietnam War, but not so much today.
Furthermore, the support or even the tacit acceptance of a flashy return to dictatorship would hurt future relations and position Washington against the next generation. It was the Thai military's intolerance of dissent, revealed by the attack on Future Forward, that convinced so many young Thais that they had only one option: protest.
Going forward, Thanathorn and other youth leaders are certainly a better choice than Prayuth, especially as escalating brutality against students could turn currently reluctant parents against the regime. This moment is the beginning rather than the end. "It's a long saga, but this student-led protest movement is a culmination of Thailand's struggle to arrive in the 21st century," said Thitinan Pongsudhirak of Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok.
Ultimately, the abusive business, judicial, and military elites are responsible for today's political crisis. Their credibility has declined as the demand for political reform increased. No wonder, Thanathorn said, that this is "the most exciting time in the history of Thailand". With the military regime running out of options, another attack of repression seems likely. If so, then people of goodwill around the world should support the Thai people's freedom campaign. Washington too.