‘We are fighting for real democracy’: Why protesters are taking on Thailand’s king
The morning after a landmark and taboo-busting day of protest in Thailand, pro-democracy demonstrators made one of their most provocative moves against the government.
In the Bangkok plaza where a marker commemorating the 1932 introduction of democracy in the kingdom vanished mysteriously three years ago, they pressed a new metal plaque into fresh concrete this week. The inscription read, in part: “This country belongs to the people and is not the property of the monarch.”
A short time later, Tattep Ruangprapaikitseree changed his Facebook profile photo to an outline of the plaque. The 23-year-old protest leader expected what came next: The golden disc was ripped from the ground and police filed complaints against demonstrators for damaging a historic site.
“Even if it’s removed,” Tattep said, “it’s still in the people’s mind.”
In a Southeast Asian kingdom that leans heavily on symbolism, Thailand’s democracy movement has taken aim at the gilded emblems and elaborate rituals that have protected its monarchy, one of the wealthiest and most powerful in the world.
Driving four months of growing street demonstrations is a small band of young activists including Tattep, who are pushing for constitutional changes that would rein in the monarchy and its allies in the military who have ruled the country since a 2014 coup.
“We are fighting for real democracy,” Tattep said in a video interview from Bangkok, the capital.
Student-led protests are calling for curbs on King Maha Vajiralongkorn’s wealth and power, openly defying laws against insulting the monarchy.
“We don’t believe that we are going to kick out the king and that’s it, or that we will kick out the military and that’s it. What we are fighting for is at the structural level: a true constitutional monarchy that really limits the king and the military’s powers.”
Protests are nothing new in Thailand’s topsy-turvy politics, which have seen a dozen successful army coups since 1932 and periodic eruptions of pro-democracy fervor that are usually squelched by force. What has shocked the country is the willingness of these young demonstrators to openly challenge the king, a mercurial figure who has wielded more power than his predecessors and been shielded from criticism by harsh lese-majeste laws.
Custom and fear fell away in this strange, unsettled summer. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, Thailand’s youth were increasingly frustrated by the military’s dominance over public life, its rewriting of the constitution to retain power in 2019 elections and its fealty to King Maha Vajiralongkorn, who has held the throne since 2016.
The 68-year-old king, who resides in Germany with a large entourage, has changed the constitution to allow him to rule from overseas and taken personal ownership of the crown’s fortune, estimated at $70 billion. Married for the fourth time, he was the first king in nearly a century to appoint a royal consort — a companion in addition to his wife. The woman was stripped of her titles and disappeared for “misbehavior and disloyalty” last year, only to be reinstated this month with little explanation.
In 2017, the original plaque marking the end of the absolute monarchy disappeared from the plaza known as Sanam Luang. It was one of several monuments to the 1932 revolution that were removed without explanation, an apparent effort “to rewrite modern Thailand’s history … while deprecating the ideals of democracy,” as the International Crisis Group wrote in a recent report.
Since the closing years of the previous monarch, the king’s late father, Thailand had begun to feel like a feudal society, with an elite maintaining a stranglehold on politics and business while the poorest Thais fell further behind. Income inequality is rising while the economy is projected to shrink by 5% this year, one of the sharpest declines in Asia.
Tattep, whose short black hair fringes a boyish face, grew up in a working-class family in Bangkok that was threatened with penury when his mother, a textile seller and the main breadwinner, died seven years ago. His father struggled to find work, eventually becoming a delivery driver.
His political awakening came in the lead-up to the 2014 coup, when a group of pro-royalist conservatives — oddly calling themselves the People’s Democratic Reform Committee — called for the military to overthrow the elected government led by Yingluck Shinawatra and drive out her supporters, known as “red shirts.”
“That didn’t feel like a democratic demand at all,” recalled Tattep, who goes by the nickname Ford. “That’s when I decided to study politics.”
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At Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University, he fell in with a group of freshmen led by Netiwit Chotipatpaisal, who caused a national stir on the first day of classes in 2016 when he refused to follow the tradition of prostrating before a statue of King Rama V, the school’s namesake. Netiwit had read in history books that the late monarch believed the practice to be humiliating to his subjects.
A few months later, Netiwit and Tattep invited Joshua Wong, the young leader of Hong Kong’s democracy movement, to speak at the university and went to the airport to pick him up. But Thai authorities detained the 19-year-old Wong upon his arrival, reportedly at the behest of the Chinese government, and sent him back to Hong Kong.
“It was the first time I felt state power so close to me,” Tattep said. “I wondered why the government would be scared of a teenager.”
The next day, he attended his first political rally and joined a group of students carrying umbrellas — the symbol of the 2014 protests Wong led in Hong Kong.
“The first months of university, Tattep didn’t show much of his courage,” Netiwit said. “But from sophomore year onward he became very active and very brave.”
After co-founding an online student forum called Free Youth, Tattep gained prominence in December 2019 while campaigning for same-sex marriage rights when he kissed his boyfriend, Panumas Singprom, during a news conference at the parliament.
The moment drew support as well as a deluge of homophobic comments online — highlighting for Tattep, who came out in high school, the inequities of a society where same-sex unions are outlawed and LGBTQ people are absent from positions of power.
“LGBTQ people are one of the groups that is most oppressed under this dictatorial state,” Tattep said. “We believe that gender equality and democracy are the same thing.”
Such long-standing grievances merged this year with worries over the government’s handling of COVID-19, the court-ordered dissolution of the leading opposition party and the abduction in Cambodia of an outspoken critic of the king, one of a string of disappearances of dissidents.
The demonstrations reflect “a truly broad-based movement,” said Tyrell Haberkorn, a professor of Southeast Asian studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “The space for youth activists, red shirts, southern Thai activists, and LGBTQI+ activists within one movement reflects the very form of democracy that they demand.”
At an Aug. 16 protest, Tattep’s group, which renamed itself Free People to reflect its broadening support, laid out three demands: dissolution of the government led by Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, constitutional amendments and an end to harassment of activists exercising democratic rights.
Ten days later, he and Panumas were arrested and charged with crimes including sedition, which carries a maximum penalty of seven years in prison. Released after a few hours, Tattep immediately violated the terms of his bail, vowing to launch another protest if Prayuth’s government didn’t meet their demands.
Some royalist supporters have called on the government to crack down, and Prayuth said this week that the country “will suffer” if the rallies continue. Tattep, who graduated this year with honors in political science, knows that previous Thai democracy movements have ended with bloodshed and the army taking over the streets.
But he believes “we’re in different times.”
“The popularity and faith in the prime minister and monarchy have fallen so much that I don’t believe the state is likely to use violence against us,” he said. “The moment that the first bullet is fired, it will be the moment that the state loses its legitimacy completely.”
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