Fractures in the Sky: Thailand’s Youth Criticize a Previously Untouchable Institution

Tear gas and water cannons barraging a wall of umbrellas and inflatable rubber duckies is a common sight on Bangkok streets these days. These past few months, Thailand has been consumed by some of the largest protests in the nation’s history. Activists are demanding three key things: the current Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha’s resignation, the rewriting of the constitution with a popularly elected drafting committee, and monarchy reform. 

Protests are not uncommon in Thailand. Generally, the political split comes down to two groups: the red shirts and yellow shirts. The red shirts are generally associated with the more pro-democratic groups in the country, and have roots in the supporters of ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who ruled from 2001 to 2006. In contrast, the yellow shirts tend to be supporters of the monarchy. 

To outsiders, and even to some members of the Thai citizenry, the 2020 protests might seem like they came out of nowhere. However, several events this year have increased frustration among young people. In February, an opposition party popular with the younger generation called Future Forward was disbanded due to an alleged violation of finance rules. While there were youth-led protests as a result, they were brought to an abrupt halt by the COVID-19 lockdown. In July, a prominent exiled Thai pro-democracy activist named Wanchalearm Satsaksit disappeared in Cambodia, further escalating existing tensions.

The current protests have deep roots in Thai history. The 2014 coup d’état marked the 13th coup in the country since the Siamese Revolution of 1932, a time regarded by scholars as the beginning of democracy in Thailand. The leader of the 2014 monarchy-backed coup, Chan-o-cha, was elected as Prime Minister in the contentious national elections of 2019. However, “most conservatives [didn’t] think that a coup d’état, or the legacy of the coup d’état, could be a breaking point” to start off protests, said a former Fletcher student from Thailand, who chose to remain anonymous.

She continued to say, “you will find that some of them will still legitimise a coup d’état…but many people like the red shirt people or the other more liberal, mostly younger people will think this is such a breaking point, that this is unbearable in a country that you call a democratic country, this is a like a cancer in a democracy, in democratic progress.” 

This set of protests also strikes a different tone due to the protestors’ approach regarding the monarchy. According to the former Fletcher student, “The young people are talking about the monarchy, while the red and yellow [shirts] don’t talk about the monarchy except for the fact that they have to be there.”

Plearn, a Tufts student from Thailand who asked to be identified by her first name only, said, “This is the first time that…the question of reforming the monarchy has been talked about…it’s such a taboo to question anything about the monarchy.” The Fletcher student added, “[The protesters] started to question a major institution, and one that used to be untouchable in the past.”

The monarchy in Thailand has some of the strictest lese-majeste (“to do wrong to the monarchy”) laws in the world, forbidding criticism of the ruling family with harsh consequences for those who do so. The royals also have a disproportionate amount of power over Thai politics. King Vajiralongkorn of Thailand is often described as the richest royal in the world, and also holds some military troops in his personal command. The relationship between the monarchy, government, and military has often been described as symbiotic, such as in the 2014 coup backed by the legitimacy of the monarchy.

Another Thai Tufts student, Deena Bhanarai, believes that respect for the monarchy is ingrained in the very culture of Thailand. “The monarchy has served as a really powerful symbol of Thai culture in a similar way to the queen of the UK…people literally feel like the king is their father, and…it shows why they’re being so violently protective of the king,” Bhanarai said.

As Bhanarai described, there’s  generational tension at play here, where much of the older generation reveres the monarchy due to propaganda, and some “are ready to defend this institution that they’ve been brought up respecting so much to the point where they would defend it with their own life.” A common narrative in Thailand is that the monarchy derives some of its legitimacy from the heavens, or the “sky above the people” (เบื้องบน). Plearn says that for the younger generation, there’s still a strong sense that “to be a good Thai, you have to respect the monarchy or the royal institution.” According to Bhanarai, conservatives often argue that “you hate the nation if you are against the monarchy. These students protesting right now, they hate the nation.” 

Thai students overseas have also drummed up support for the protests. On November 22, a group of Thai students and their allies stood outside the Thailand Trade and Economic Office in Taipei at an event hosted by Taiwan Alliance for Thai Democracy. One of the student protestors tore up a Thai flag, separating the blue stripe in the middle from the red and white on the outside. The student then stepped on the blue stripe, which symbolizes the monarchy. One sign read, “If you don’t know how to stay under the constitution, then go to hell,” with many of these signs intentionally using informal language to show that the monarchy as an institution is on the same level as the rest of the people.  

The Thai political situation has even reached Boston. Outside the Harvard Kennedy School is a square dedicated to King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the late Thai king who died in 2016 and was born in Cambridge. Thai democracy supporters have also been protesting here in solidarity with their counterparts overseas. Protestors danced alongside a large rubber duck, which has become a symbol of the pro-democracy movement. 

Plearn saw international solidarity in this set of protests. “The support is there, non-traditional alliances…a lot of people from Hong Kong [are] sharing protest tips.” But she wished that “people knew more about Thailand. I know a lot of people when they heard about this were like, ‘Oh, Thailand had a monarchy, we didn’t know that.’” According to Plearn, while Western media has brought attention to Bangkok, it’s critical that attention stays there and that people are aware. 

”Thai politics, and the perception around Thai politics, has moved to another stage,” said the anonymous Fletcher student. “These are new actors, new concepts, new everything.”