Students in Thailand wage epic protests against the monarchy

Up to 10,000 pro-democracy supporters, many of them high school and college students, march and rally in Bangkok on Aug. 16, 2020. PHOTO: Will Langston
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College and high school students began to hit the streets in February 2020, angered at the government outlawing the only opposition party in parliament — the Future Forward Party. When Covid-19 struck and all schools were shut down, the rebellion stalled. But not for long. Deepening anger at suppression of free speech and mounting economic need erupted in mid-July as tens of thousands across the country marched and rallied. It quickly became an unprecedented challenge to Thailand’s centuries-old monarchy, formerly known as the kingdom of Siam.

Gross inequality reigns. Thailand’s king, 68-year-old Maha Vajiralongkorn, is the richest ruler on the planet, with an estimated worth of approximately $40 billion. When the Covid-19 pandemic started, he relocated to the Bavarian Alps with his  harem of 20 concubines.

His lifelong excesses are paid for by the public, which suffers severe poverty and staggering economic inequality — among the highest in the world. The richest 1% of Thais own about 67% of the country’s wealth; the poorest 50% own less than 2%. Predictably,  conditions have severely worsened during the pandemic.

Young Thais see no viable economic future for their generation. Neither do Thailand’s nearly 40 million workers. Only 1.5% of them belong to unions, because labor law prohibits it. Twenty-five million work in the informal sector and get no social security. A great many of the four to five million migrant workers, primarily from Myanmar (Burma), Cambodia and Laos, are “unqualified” for Covid-19 relief.

Given these stark conditions, it is no wonder that the peoples of Thailand are building for radical change. Social media and encrypted chat services have provided a powerful medium for that. Dissent has been organized and emboldened as never before, while the out-of-touch government struggles to keep up with bombast on the internet. Such new organizing skills played a crucial role in activists’ ability to pull off very large and frequent protests in 2020 and attract enormous international support.

Many of the earliest organizers and participants have been women students.  As The New York Times reported, they are increasingly speaking out against “a patriarchy that has long controlled the military, the monarchy and the Buddhist monkhood, Thailand’s most powerful institutions.” Reproductive rights, the wage gap, and a rape culture have all been highlighted during rallies. Working women are heavily discriminated against, impoverished and angry.

Other targets. The roots of discontent include the corrupt government of pro-monarchy Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha, who took power through a coup in 2014. Prayut, a retired military general, then established a repressive military junta to crack down on dissent and curtail democracy in the interests of the monarchy and the capitalist class. Prayut and his military remain firmly in power under a very thin facade of bourgeois democracy with a so-called constitution and parliament. Thailand is actually a dictatorship. Its military appoints the Senate. A crooked election in 2019 confirmed Prime Minister Prayut and his right-wing party and politicians.

As the rebellion mounted, the government enforced a ban on public gatherings in October, and reimposed one of the world’s strictest lèse-majesté laws, which make criticizing the monarchy a treasonous, imprisonable crime. But the rebels were not deterred. Inspired by insurgence in Hong Kong and elsewhere, they organized spontaneous “pop-up” demonstrations throughout the country. Despite police tear gas, chemical-laced water cannons and violent pro-royalist thugs, they continued to take to the streets in tens of thousands, breaking over the New Year’s holidays to regroup. The movement is predominately youth, but others are increasingly on the front line — union and non-union workers, retirees, and militant LGBTQ+ activists.

Demonstrators have escalated their demands, exposing the profound crimes of Thailand’s ruling class and monarchy. They are calling for: resignation of the Prime Minister; repeal of lèse-majesté laws; amnesty for all imprisoned by these laws; freedom of political expression; investigation of murders of dissidents; parliamentary scrutiny of the king’s actions; regulation of the king’s finances; slashing the amount of public funds allocated to the king; relinquishment of the royal fortune; cessation of pro-monarchy propaganda in public relations and education; abolition of the royal charity funds so that all of the monarchy’s assets will be auditable; prohibiting the king from endorsing coups.

Their call for a new constitution sharply curbs the power of the monarchy, enhances the power of elected officials, and gives people more democratic rights.

As the rebels’ far-reaching demands swell, the government increases its repressive reaction. This provokes further revolt, which in turn enhances the massive popular will to change a system that less than a year ago seemed impregnable.

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