Shortcuts / 01 October 2020

Protests in Thailand

Thailand has a particularly turbulent political history. It’s got a lot of beautiful beaches, but it’s also got military coups and a monarchy that’s central to its national character. It’s also one of the few places in the world with lèse majesté  laws, which is tricky because their current king is quite a colourful character…

A recent protest movement has been in the news a bit lately, and in this episode of Squiz Shortcuts, we’ll take a look at why Thailand is unique amongst southeast Asian nations, how its monarchy is protected, and what demonstrators are risking by calling for change to the way the country is governed.

Thailand has a unique political history…

Officially called the Kingdom of Thailand, it was formerly known as Siam. It’s one of the few countries in South-East Asia to have escaped colonial rule, though that doesn’t mean it escaped pressure from France and Britain throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. It signed many unequal treaties during that time. But it was never ruled by Western empires, which saw it retain a particular character that is still present today. That character – and its society and politics – is defined by its prevailing Buddhist religion, and the roles of the monarchy and military.

What does a modern Thailand look like?

Today Thailand is a nation of almost 70 million people. Its economy is widely referenced as a success story, and as a developing nation it’s done a lot to lift people out of poverty. In 1988 about 65% of the population was considered to be living in poverty and in 2018 that had dropped to around 10%. Thailand’s economy depends heavily on tourism, so it’s been hit hard by Covid-19 in terms of growth and employment, though there numbers are low (3,500 cases and 52 deaths). It’s an export dependent nation, notably of cars, electronics and appliances. A recent drought has caused a hit to their rice exports recently as well. As for the media landscape, technically the media are free to criticise the government and its policies, though experts say they rarely do because the government and the military control nearly all of the televisions and radio networks, and they’re explicitly not allowed to criticise the royal family.

Why is that significant?

Here we come to the lèse majesté laws. Lèse majesté is a French term meaning ‘to do wrong to majesty’ and it describes an offence against the dignity of a reigning sovereign, or against a state. Thailand is one of the few countries that still has the law, and it’s amongst the strictest in the world. In Thailand, anyone who “defames, insults or threatens the king, the queen, the heir-apparent or the regent” will be punished with a jail term between three and 15 years. And that law has remained virtually unchanged since the creation of the country’s first criminal code in 1908. For good measure, it’s been written into Thailand’s constitutions that “The King shall be enthroned in a position of revered worship and shall not be violated. No person shall expose the King to any sort of accusation or action.”

Which gets a little tricky with the current king…

King Maha Vajiralongkorn is quite a colourful character. He had his coronation in May 2019 following the death of his very popular father. He’s 68yo, and as a young man he did his military training and uni degree via Duntroon Military College in Canberra. He’s been married 4 times, and he’s the first in decades to have an official consort. He mostly lives in Germany, and his net worth is estimated to be around US$30 billion, making him the wealthiest ruler in the world. His father, King Bhumibol, who died in October 2016 after seven decades on the throne, was widely revered and sometimes treated as a god-like figure. So a tough act to follow… And hard for those who might want to say something about it…

How do the lèse majesté laws work in a modern context in Thailand?

This is one of the modern day challenges – there is no definition of what constitutes an insult to the monarchy, and critics say this gives the authorities leeway to interpret the law in a very broad way. Between 2014 and 2018 there were nearly 100 lèse majesté cases filed. In one example a man was sentenced to 35 years in jail for Facebook posts that were deemed insulting to the Royal Family. Others have been prosecuted for defaming the late King’s pet dog, or burning pictures of the king. Human rights groups say many of these cases were used to clamp down on free speech and persecute opponents to the military government, allegations which the government denies. The United Nations has repeatedly called on Thailand to amend the lèse majesté laws.

Thailand has a rocky political history…

It does. At the start of the 1900s, the Siamese system of government was centralised under the reign of an absolute monarch. And in 1932, that absolute monarchy then gave way way to constitutional monarchy with parliamentary government. Since then, its on again-off again democracy has seen 19 attempted coups – 12 of which were successful. Today, the Prime Minister is Prayuth Chan-ocha, who was part of a 2014 coup and won disputed elections in 2019. He’s a former Commander in Chief of the army and is considered a hardliner within the military. 

What’s the role of the military when it comes to government and power?

Thailand’s military is staunchly royalist. And one of the justifications for military coups has been that governments were undermining the institution of the monarchy. 

What about the recent protests?

Waves of unrest began in February 2019 after a court ordered a fledgling pro-democracy party to dissolve. The Future Forward party was particularly popular with young, first-time voters and it had the third-largest share of parliamentary seats in the March 2019 election. On top of that, a prominent pro-democracy activist Wanchalearm Satsaksit went missing in Cambodia in June. He had been in exile since the 2014 military coup. The government denied any involvement in his disappearance, but it saw a protest movement grow in earnest since July.

The protestors have zero’d in on the lèse majesté laws because they feel the government is using them as a proxy to silence complaints about Thailand’s system of government more broadly. They’re mainly high school and uni students, and are demanding that the government headed by Prime Minister Chan-ocha’s government be dissolved; that the monarchy be reformed, the constitution be rewritten; and that the authorities stop harassing critics. And it’s drawn the biggest demonstrations since 2014.

What’s the reaction been?

Prime Minister Chan-ocha has said he will consider some of the protesters’ demands regarding the constitution, but has said the monarchy should not be criticised. The Royal Palace has made no comment on the protests and the demands for reform. But interestingly, the King has let it be known he no longer wants the lèse majesté law to be so widely used. One thing to note about these protests – so far they have been peaceful. Demonstrators and authorities say they’re committed to that. It remains to be seen if they will result in any meaningful change.

Squiz Recommends

Vox profile on King Vaijiralongkorn

The invention of Pad Thai as a national dish

Squiz Shortcuts - A weekly explainer on a big news topic.

Get the Squiz Today newsletter

It's a quick read and doesn't take itself too seriously. Get on it.