“The King is Dead, Long Live the King”: on Thai’s Authoritarian Turn

By Melina Froidure

It was only when I turned 20 that one of the great mysteries of my childhood was resolved. I accidentally discovered that I had grapheme-color synesthesia, a neurological condition in which people experience colors when thinking about letters, numbers or words. Everything suddenly gained clarity. Adults had always been reluctant to tell me what colour Monday was for them. But that was not because they were lacking imagination. Simply, unlike me they did not see words written in their minds, each one with a particular shade. Interestingly, Thailand also associates Mondays with yellow, but for different reasons. In Siam, which Thailand was called earlier, each day of the week has a “lucky colour”. Ancient Thai traditions, influenced by Hinduism, state that weekdays are related to certain planetary bodies and their ruling gods. And each deity has its corresponding colour. Monday, for instance, is related to the moon and the god Chandra. As the previous most-revered Thai monarch Bhumidol (Rama IX) was born on a Monday, yellow has also become the symbol of the royal family. I was therefore expecting the visual landscape to be saturated in ochres on July 28th, the current King Maha Vijiralongkorn’s birthday. Yet on that very day, it was black that reigned in the streets. If colors are eminently political, what does the visual landscape reveal about Thai politics?

People had organized to mark the sovereign’s birthday by wearing black, an act of political defiance orchestrated on social media. Indeed, since August last year, students and other groups have started openly criticizing the monarchy, breaking a decades-old taboo. The institution is regarded as one of the pillars of the nation, together with Buddhism and Thai language. “Soul of the nation ” topping the social hierarchy, the King is still revered by some as a semi-divine entity. Moreover, the country’s strict lese-majeste laws render any criticism particularly costly. Offenders face up to 15 years of imprisonment for a crime that has been loosely defined, a useful tool to stifle critics. Critiquing the «phor khun» (supreme father) might also prove particularly delicate in a society that highly respects the elderly and places great importance on family ties. However, Royal legitimacy has been eroding since Rama X succeeded his father Bhumibol Adulyadej in 2016. The new king is said to neglect his people as he spends most of his time in Bavaria, Germany. Scandals related to his romantic life and the privileges granted to his wives have also tarnished Vijiralongkorn’s reputation. But the bulk of criticism is directed towards Rama X’s concentration of powers. The king has placed key military units as well as royal assets under his direct control. Thai throne is the wealthiest monarchy in the world and the richest entity in a country where 1% of the population retains 70% of the wealth.

Condemnation of the King often goes hand in hand with calls for the current Prime minister Prayuth Chan O Cha to resign. The latter seized power in 2014, in a coup ousting then Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra. Prayuth restored repressive military rule, tightening the grip on civil liberties. Freedom of speech has particularly been restricted in a shrinking democratic space. The government has undermined electoral democracy while consolidating military dominance over Thai politics with a 2017 new Constitution designed to favour junta-backed parties. The fundamental law, approved in an unfair national referendum to which only 55% of the population participated, also empowers unelected institutions while placing heaving constraints on elected authority. A telling example is that of the senate, usually a crucial checks and balances body. The Thai upper house is appointed by the junta and it retains veto power over constitutional amendments. The institution also has a say in the Prime Minister’s appointment. The Constitution has thus institutionalized the role of the unelected minority elite. Thailand, it has been argued, has shifted from illiberal democracy to military authoritarianism.

The country has a history of strong, autocratic control over politics, society and the economy. Further, the military and monarchy nurture a symbiotic relationship in which each institution grants the other legitimacy and guarantees of stability. Since 1932 and the end of absolute royal rule, Thailand has experienced 13 military coups, all more or less openly endorsed by the throne. The country has never managed to sustain a democratic culture among its establishment, a small network of elites with shallow roots in society. The political sphere has traditionally been dominated by the royal family, royalist civil service, high-ranking military officers as well as ultra-wealthy tycoons. It is thus an entire oligarchic system that protestors are calling into question. The anti-establishment movement sparked in February 2020, when the opposition party Future Forward (FFP), progressive and largely youth-backed, was dissolved by the Constitutional Court. FFP key figures were also banned from politics for ten years as the judicial body ruled that the party had received an illegal loan from its leader. A few months later, students took the contestation further by issuing ten demands to reform the monarchy. These key requests revolve around a curbing of His Majesty’s powers as well as a slashing of the royal budget. More than mere regime change, protesters are also asking for broader social transformations, including the recognition of greater LGBTQI rights.

If the youth plays an important role in the protests, former government allies have also swelled their ranks in late June. The movement gained momentum over the government’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. While Thailand contained the first outbreaks pretty well, cases are now drastically rising with the new Delta variant. At the heart of discontent lies the shortage of vaccines, despite the state producing AstraZeneca doses through its king-owned company Siam Bioscience. Covid has been instrumentalized to silence opposition, as illustrated by the government’s adoption of new measures restricting media freedom in late July. Officials have scapegoated news outlets, claiming that fake news and misinformation were responsible for the surge of virus cases. In general, protests have been strongly repressed, with key leaders charged with sedition, defamation and even lese-majeste. In Bangkok, the police have reportedly been using water cannons as well as rubber bullets to disperse the crowds. Opposition’s grievances are not shared by everyone. Monarchy especially remains a highly divisive topic in Thai polarized society. Generational gaps are at play, together with the urban-rural cleavages. The so-called hill tribes (ethnic groups living in the Northern uplands) have also historically been forced to demonstrate their strong attachment to the king in order to show that they truly belong to the nation. Analysts predict that the movement will run out of steam, as it remains too fragmented to achieve substantial change. “That may be, but the mere fact that we are now openly discussing monarchy is a huge progress already”, my Thai classmate Malee* affirms. And she passionately shouts, three fingers in the air, the protesters’ motto: “no god, no king, only humans”.

*The name has been modified to preserve her anonymity.

Cover photo:  Miriam Hauertmann

Melina Froidure is a master’s student specializing in peacebuilding and humanitarian action. Passionate about international affairs as well as disco music, she wishes to become a radio journalist. Her motto? “Curiosity killed the cat, art history brought her back.”

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