Members of the government in front of a portrait of the Thai king in Bangkok: The monarchy has never been so unpopularPhoto: DIEGO AZUBEL / EPA-EFE / Shutterstock
The students came in Harry Potter robes to fight the overwhelming odds in their country. Some of the 200 protesters disguised themselves as magicians as they rose against the rulers in Bangkok at the so-called democracy monument in the Thai capital. It looked as if they wanted to conjure up a change with magical powers.
For almost two weeks now, young Thais have been protesting almost daily against the establishment made up of the military and royal elites. They complain that the former head of the military government and current Prime Minister Prayut Chan-Ocha is undermining democracy. That he takes rigorous action against critics and continues to expand his power during the pandemic. The government is becoming less and less popular. The demonstrators demand that the prime minister resign.
Anti-government protests in Bangkok in early August: no more patience with the kingPhoto: Lauren DeCicca / Getty Images
What was new this week was that six spokesmen for the anti-government protests in Bangkok publicly called for the power of the Thai King Maha Vajiralongkorn to be curtailed. They called for the reform of those laws that also give the king in Thailand far-reaching power. They accused the palace of sitting idly by as the military-dominated government subjugated the country. There has never been such an open student protest against the king in Thailand.
Palace and government are closely linked in Thailand. Since Vajiralongkorn ascended the throne in 2016, the monarch has expanded his power even further - with the support of the government. In return, the government benefits from the palace legitimizing the influence of the military on politics. Many young Thais reject the resulting sham democracy, in which the military is still in charge.
The young Thais also have little understanding for a monarch who hardly spends time in his homeland. His absence became even more apparent in the corona crisis, the king is hardly interested in the outbreak in Thailand, the protesters criticize.
But criticism of the king and protests like this week are risky. According to the so-called "lèse-majesté", any criticism of the monarch in Thailand can be punished with up to 15 years in prison. It is noteworthy that the police were present but did not arrest anyone. The government subsequently announced that the police would decide for themselves whether they would continue to take action against the protesters. Those in power took a soothing stance - knowing that the wrath of the youth was growing.
"Hatred of the nation"
Thailand's powerful army chief called the "nation's hatred" a bigger threat than coronavirus this week. The virus can be cured. The "sickness" of criticizing one's own nation, however, is not.
Protests against the government under Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha: No more bogus democracyPhoto: ATHIT PERAWONGMETHA / REUTERS
The protests against the king and government hit Thailand at a sensitive time. With around 3,300 infected people, there are comparatively few corona cases in the country. But the economy is down. Tourism, one of the most important sources of income, has collapsed. Millions of people have lost their jobs. Recently, the Thai media reported a wave of suicides by desperate citizens.
"An increasing number of Thai people want real democracy," says Dr. Paul Chambers, Special Advisor for International Affairs at Naresuan University in Thailand. The palace has taken a "more direct role in relation to the military and other administrative units of the government" while at the same time ignoring the "erosion of democracy". Against this trend, in which the palace and government played into each other's hands, the protesters dared to stand up this week.
Thais want more democracy
The anger was preceded by several severe setbacks for the democracy movement in the country. "It all started in February 2020 when the Future Forward party, supported by most of the disaffected youth, was disbanded on dubious legal grounds," said Chambers. In March, during the corona pandemic, the government passed emergency laws that "gave it more power at a time when more and more Thais wanted more democracy."
King Maha Vajiralongkorn visiting Thailand in April 2020: 24-hour tripPhoto: ATHIT PERAWONGMETHA / AFP
In June 2020, the government critic Wanchalearm Satsaksit disappeared from his exile in Cambodia. A wave of outrage swept the country. Again and again, critics of the monarch are persecuted abroad. Three dissidents recently disappeared in Laos and were found dead in the Mekong. Critics of the monarchy believe that King Vajiralongkorn has extensive control over the military, the police and the judiciary. The Washington Post writes that the king has chosen to rule "by intimidation". "Thailand has become a kingdom of fear."
Absence provokes displeasure
Thousands protested in Bangkok after the activist's disappearance in July 2020, demanding "the resignation of the cabinet, dissolution of parliament and a new constitution," according to Analyst Chambers. The open criticism of the king is the furthest step so far for the demonstrators. "Resistance to Thailand's sham democracy is growing."
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The 68-year-old King Maha Vajiralongkorn should not have noticed too much, because he is usually not there. He spends a lot of time in Germany in a villa on Lake Starnberg or stays in a luxury hotel in Garmisch Patenkirchen. The tattooed king, who is married for the fourth time, is considered eccentric and arrogant. His disreputable private life, his extravagance and his military demeanor at times when the Thais opposed the military junta have never been well received.
Since the death of his Thai father, King Bhumibol, in 2016, King Vajiralongkorn has increased his power. A new constitution gave him more rights. He also gained access to royal wealth management: for the first time in nearly 70 years, the Thai king regained direct control of the family's wealth, an estimated $ 30 billion. The monarch has taken control of military units and has thousands of highly trained soldiers near Bangkok.
Anti-government protests in Bangkok in early August 2020: the furthest step so farPhoto: Watcharawit Phudork / imago images / ZUMA Wire
He made headlines in December 2019 for evicting his concubine from the palace. She disappeared in a prison. Shortly afterwards, he fired six employees at his palace - including a court master who is said to have forced a lover to have an abortion.
When the monarch was at a ceremony in Bangkok at the beginning of April at state expense, Vajiralongkorn disregarded the quarantine rules and quickly flew back to Europe with the national line Thai Airways. The hashtag "WhyDoWeNeedAKing" trended after his short trip to Thailand.
In Garmisch-Patenkirchen he is staying at the "Grand Hotel Sonnenbichl" - there they had a special permit for the king in March. The hotel remained closed to ordinary guests. The monarch and his entourage, however, took up residence near the Bavarian Alps. The festivities organized by the government for his 68th birthday in July also took place in Bangkok without him. They were accompanied by protest during these summer days.Icon: The mirror