Thailand protests: Risking it all to challenge the monarchy - BBC News

Published by BBC.COM

Summary generated on August 15, 2020

    LILLIAN SUWANRUMPHA/AFP A growing movement among students has been calling for political reform in Thailand.

    In recent days, the protests have taken a surprising turn, writes an analyst in London for the BBC. On a stage at an out-of-town campus of one of Thailand's top universities, a young woman with wavy long hair and owlish spectacles steps forward, through a dramatic cloud of dry-ice, and reads out a 10-point manifesto to a crowd of cheering students.

    Her demands, for a monarchy that is accountable to the country's elected institutions, that moderates its use of public funds, stays out of politics and does not exercise control over important army units, would be unremarkable in most countries.

    Thais are taught from birth that the monarchy is the keystone that holds the country together, the institution that embodies the national character.

    Thais are taught to respect, revere and love the monarchy, but also to fear the consequences of speaking about it.

    The student leader who read out the manifesto, Panusaya Sithijirawattanakul, has since stayed mostly on her campus, planning further rallies, and nervously watching the plain-clothes police who are now constantly monitoring her.

    There are so many grievances against the government at the moment, he says, which the students share with wider Thai society.

    These protests are happening during an almost perfect storm of bad news for the Thai government.

    He stressed that he wanted to reform, not overthrow, the constitutional monarchy.

    Anon also questioned King Vajiralongkorn's decision to take personal command of all military units based in Bangkok, something he believes cannot be compatible with a democratic, constitutional monarchy.

    "That's why I chose to speak candidly, to honour my own integrity, the integrity of the audience, and out of respect for the monarchy. Because if we don't speak frankly about it, then we will never understand it."

    Far from silencing talk about the monarchy, their demands have now been taken up by a student movement which has been agitating for change for many months, and which is active in campuses across the country, and includes high-school students as well.

    Their comments about the monarchy, although expressed with moderation and reason, would have been unthinkable even a year ago.

    "This generation knows for a fact that the monarchy is involved in politics and that affects the lives of the Thai people," said one.

    "So it is fair and democratic for us to talk about anyone involved in politics, whether it is the military or the monarchy."

    "We have to try to start talking about it, making it a new norm in society to talk about the monarchy," said the other.

    At a small pro-monarchy demonstration in Bangkok's historic royal quarter this month a student told the BBC that "The three pillars of this country, nation, religion and monarchy, must be revered, not brought down to be played with like this. That's not the right way under a constitutional monarchy."

    "We're not coming out to fight with them. We have come out to show the power of the other side. Thailand has a long history. It cannot be brought down by those who want to defame the monarchy," they said.

    It cannot be seen to be failing to defend the monarchy.

    "Society won't stop, change won't stop. The only thing we can do is to take care that the change takes place with as little bloodshed as possible. Thais have been gossiping about the monarchy in private for years, then teaching their children to praise it lavishly in public, to be hypocrites. All these young protesters have done is bring that gossip out into the open."