Why are there protests against Thailand’s king?

20-Aug-2020 Intellasia | SMH | 6:02 AM Print This Post

Thailand’s monarchy has long been considered untouchable, an institution of vast wealth and power protected against scrutiny by draconian laws. It is often described as a sacred and revered institution, purportedly above politics.

With a new king, criticisms long whispered are spilling into the open. King Maha Vajiralongkorn’s lavish lifestyle, mostly enjoyed in Germany, colourful personal history and volatile reputation have made him a figure of fear in some quarters and ridicule in others.

King Maha Vajiralongkorn's coronation went for three days in May 2019. Credit:Thailand's Royal Public Relations Department

King Maha Vajiralongkorn’s coronation went for three days in May 2019. Credit:Thailand’s Royal Public Relations Department

Protests across many provinces in 2020, defying emergency decrees in the middle of a pandemic, made oblique references to the monarchy and its power. In August, the criticism became explicit, with a series of protests taking aim not only at the structure of the monarchy and its influence in politics and military affairs but at the king personally.

Why is such criticism extremely unusual in Thailand? What laws protect the king? How are this year’s protests different from the past? And how does Harry Potter and a 500-year-old elephant battle fit into all of this?

Why is criticism of Thailand’s king unusual?

Because it’s effectively outlawed. A law known as lese-majeste literally “injured majesty” is infamous in Thailand. Article 112 of the country’s criminal code says anyone who “defames, insults or threatens the king, the queen, the heir-apparent or the regent” can be punished with a jail term of between three and 15 years. The law has been used to quell almost all criticism of the royal family.

Several countries have similar statutes on the books but Thailand’s lese-majeste law is the world’s harshest. Punishments are often imposed consecutively, meaning sentences can be decades long. Truth is often not a defence.

This is why, for generations, little has been said openly, even in private, about the king in Thailand. Guide books have warned tourists against insults.

The law has been around since 1908 but the penalties were toughened by a military junta in 1976, and the number of charges and length of sentences increased markedly in the last years of the previous king’s rule. After a coup in 2014, the junta issued an edict allowing prosecutions for liking or sharing content on social media, and there was a notorious case where a young activist was incarcerated for sharing a BBC Thai profile of Vajiralongkorn.

Who is the king?

King Maha Vajiralongkorn, also known as Rama X, is the 10th monarch in the Chakri dynasty, which dates back to 1782. The family had absolute rule until a revolution in 1932.

The long reign of Vajiralongkorn’s father, Bhumibol Adulyadej, was responsible for the high regard in which the monarchy has been held. Through a series of development projects (and with the support of propaganda), he won a place in many Thai hearts and was often greeted with adoring crowds. By the end of his 70 years on the throne in 2016, he had come to be regarded by many as the “father of the nation”.

Vajiralongkorn is Bhumibol’s only son. He was a student at The King’s School in Parramatta and at Duntroon, the Australian Army’s officer training college, from 1972 until 1975. He was 66 when he formally assumed the throne in an elaborate, three-day ceremony in May 2019.

Married four times and with eight children, Vajiralongkorn’s reputation as a playboy dates back to when he was a young man. His mother even referred to him in the 1980s as “a little bit of a Don Juan”.

His first marriage, to a cousin, officially ended in 1993, although by then he had five children with the woman, a former actress, who became his second wife. That marriage lasted two years until, in 1996, she left for Britain with the children. She and their four sons were later granted asylum in the US by the Clinton administration; the daughter, now a fashion designer, was raised by her father.

The king had a son, Prince Dipangkorn, with his third wife, Srirasmi, in 2005, who notoriously wore only a g-string in a video of a 2009 birthday party thrown for a prize poodle, Foo Foo. She was stripped of her titles in December 2014 and put under house arrest, where she remains, while seven relatives were charged with corruption and/or lese-majeste for profiting from their royal connections, and many were handed hefty jail terms.

Vajiralongkorn’s relationship with his fourth wife, a flight attendant, had been long rumoured but he surprised the world three days before his coronation by announcing they were married. He also briefly had a consort, an army officer elevated to a rank not seen since the end of absolute monarchy, but who was stripped of her titles within months.

One former palace insider says the king has a temper and makes emotional decisions. The military is closely linked to his identity, analysts say, as he values discipline, has close advisers who were in the armed forces, and bestows military ranks on favoured women.

Since coming to power, he has taken direct control of several army units, assumed personal ownership of the Crown Property Bureau’s fortune (estimated at somewhere between $40-$70 billion) and intervened in the drafting of the constitution there have been 20 new or revised charters in Thailand since 1932 to ensure he could spend more time in Germany. He flies back to Thailand for important occasions.

Of his reputation, when he was crown prince he said that black sheep were useful in making other sheep appear whiter.

Who has been charged under lese-majeste laws?

Thai Lawyers for Human Rights knows of 25 people now in jail for lese-majeste. Notable cases have included a DVD seller charged for distributing an ABC Foreign Correspondent report containing clips of Foo Foo’s scandalous birthday; Australian author Harry Nicolaides was sentenced to three years’ jail, and later pardoned, over a line in a work of fiction; and a man was sentenced to 70 years, halved because he confessed, over 10 messages on Facebook.

The most attention-grabbing case was over a 500-year-old elephant battle involving a long-dead king that had been used as the basis for a series of royalist films. Social critic Sulak Sivaraksa questioned the accuracy of the Thai version of history and was charged. It took until 2018 for the king to step in and have the case quashed.

Sulak, who has beaten the charge five times, says the king not only put an end to his case but ordered a stop to lese-majeste prosecutions. prime minister Prayut Chan-o-cha also said the king did not want the law to be used.

It’s true there have been no new lese-majeste prosecutions since 2018; other laws have been used instead. Sedition laws and the Computer Crimes Act each carry hefty penalties and can be used for alleged offences against national security.

But that moratorium may be over: on August 13, protest leader Parit “Penguin” Chiwarak, 24, posted that he was facing a lese-majeste charge and a day later was carried away by plainclothes police on the way to a demonstration.

So why are there protests now?

The abduction of government critic Wanchalearm Satsaksit, 38, from the streets of Cambodia in June was one galvanising moment. He was wanted for lese-majeste, and security footage of a black SUV taking him away went viral. His image has been a regular feature of the protests.

Economic failures during the pandemic have also hurt, while constitutional reform, student issues and LGBTQI rights are also on the agenda. The king’s long stays in Germany and lack of popular appeal have also made him a target. Also, high school and university students feature prominently, another marked change from protests of the past.

On August 10, the protesters made 10 demands for reforming the monarchy. These included the abolition of the lese-majeste law, cuts to the king’s budget, a clear delineation between crown property and the king’s personal wealth, and a requirement for the king to be accountable to Parliament as stipulated in the post-revolution constitution of 1932. No such requirement exists under the latest constitution, and royal decrees circumvent Parliament.

Academic Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a lese-majeste suspect who was granted refugee status in Japan and one of the three most-wanted critics of the monarchy, says the confluence of all these factors has resulted in an unprecedented opportunity to examine the monarchy’s place in Thai life. His private Facebook group for such discussion, Royalist Marketplace, has about 900,000 members and has turned Pavin into both a meme and something of an icon for the protest.

“The 10 demands have been written in a very formal, serious way,” Pavin says. “This is not just to humiliate the monarchy, this is something that can be taken to Parliament.

“I would not discredit what the students are doing right now. As someone who has been promoting serious discussion of the monarchy for so long, I must say that this is such a new phenomenon for me, too.”

The government was swift to declare the protesters had “crossed the line” just by mentioning the monarchy.

What does Harry Potter have to do with the protests?

Because of the strict laws, criticism and gossip about the royal family has often been passed in code. Satire and the use of pop-culture references are popular, particularly online where cartoons and memes are shared widely.

On August 3, a Harry Potter-themed protest likened Vajiralongkorn to the Harry Potter villain Voldemort (He Who Must Not Be Named). This is a recent phenomenon but in character for a population that co-opted the three-finger Hunger Games salute in defiance of the 2014 coup.

A lawyer who spoke at the Harry Potter protest, Arnon Nampa, said it was time to speak about the king directly rather than in riddles. On August 7, he was dragged into a police station to be charged with several offences but not lese-majeste. Another 30 people are said to be in line to be charged and a crackdown is feared.

What’s next?

For a country with a long history of coups and deadly crackdowns, there are fears the latest protests could turn violent. Cabinet ministers have warned of the possibility, although the prime minister has urged police to show restraint.

Pavin says it is “too soon to say” whether 2020 will prove a major turning point for the Thai monarchy, however, it is clear “the students have set a new benchmark in Thai politics”. Pavin says he hopes the protests continue to gain momentum but change will only be achieved with support in political and business circles that doesn’t exist, at least for now.




Category: Thailand

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