A thousand smiles turn sour: why are Thais calling for a new constitution?

Playing out against the backdrop of a global pandemic, 2020 has been unprecedented in more ways than one: disillusionment and discontent have been rife the world over. Count the number of rigged elections and anti-government uprisings and you’ll likely run out of toes, as well as fingers.

In keeping with its turbulent political history, Thailand is just one of many countries thrown into turmoil by anti-government protests. Unrest in recent months has reached fever-pitch, with demonstrators filling the streets of Bangkok in droves, calling for extensive constitutional reform and the resignation of Thai Prime Minister, Prayuth Chan-o-cha.

The present atmosphere is starkly different from the optimism of last year, when Thais hoped the upcoming election would herald the dawn of a new, democratic age. Those anticipating an end to military rule were sadly disappointed when Chan-o-cha, the same leader who had assumed power following the 2014 coup, was reinstated as PM.

Quashing any remaining hope that opposition might be voiced in a free and transparent manner, Thailand’s Constitutional Court ordered the dissolution of a popular opposition party, Future Forward, in February of this year. For many, this was seen to be a coup de grâce for democracy and was the catalyst for a wave of demonstrations that took place at university campuses across the capital. These protests were initially stalled by Covid-19 restrictions but they recommenced in June when a prominent satirist and pro-democracy activist, Wanchalearm Satsaksit, was abducted. On October 14th, as protests reached their height, the Thai government imposed a state of emergency, a pretext for cracking down on the largely peaceful protesters. Following this ruling, authorities have arrested dozens of activists and used water cannon to deter demonstrators. Furthermore, the government has suspended the online platform ‘Voice TV’ for its coverage of the protests, and is attempting to block Telegram, an encrypted messaging app that protesters have been using to coordinate rallies.

But it is not merely government restrictions against political opposition that protesters are taking issue with. Thailand’s current constitution also allows the monarchy to interfere with politics through the National Assembly, Council of Ministers and the courts, as well as enabling the monarch to amass vast quantities of property and wealth – to the extent that the current King’s estimated worth is around US$40bn. Although the monarchy is viewed as sacrosanct in Thai culture, with the state actively fostering such reverence, the current king, Maha Vajiralongkorn is far less popular than his predecessor. These student-led protests show that younger generations are beginning to question the monarchy’s supreme authority. What complicates matters, however, is that Thailand is one of few remaining countries with ‘crime de lèse majestè’ laws, which make it illegal to criticise the immediate royal family. Described as the ‘world’s harshest lèse majesté laws’, the punishment for contravention is up to 15 years imprisonment.

So, why is the current king so unpopular? Beyond his questionable accrual of wealth, King Vajiralongkorn is a controversial figure for several reasons. Described in various media outlets as ‘Thailand’s Playboy King,’ his reputation as a womaniser precedes him. He has been married four times and was the subject of scandal last year when he stripped his royal consort and lover of all her titles, accusing her of plotting against the Queen. Vajiralongkorn has further come under fire for his reaction to the Covid-19 crisis: he has spent the past months governing from Bavaria where he booked out an entire Alpine hotel for himself and an entourage of 20 women. This move has given rise to criticism from Thai citizens as well as German officials, who have warned the King not to govern from German soil.

The stakes are high for those expressing their opposition. The memory of Wanchalearm Sasaksit, and the nine activists who mysteriously disappeared following the 2014 military takeover, remains fresh. Nevertheless, it is important to recognise just how ground-breaking these protests are for Thailand. The Thai monarchy has never before been faced with such public defiance. Undeterred by the government-imposed state of emergency, tens of thousands have come out despite restrictions, and have issued an ultimatum, giving Mr Prayuth three days to step down. Although the PM has rejected calls for his resignation, authorities have revoked the emergency decree, just eight days after it was declared. Protesters can only hope that this acquiescence signals potential for further compromise.

Image: Khaosod English via Wikimedia Commons

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