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Thailand's Conservative Government Grapples with Royal Reckoning

High school students flash the three-fingered salute, symbol of resistance, during a protest rally in Bangkok, Thailand, Sept. 5, 2020.
High school students flash the three-fingered salute, symbol of resistance, during a protest rally in Bangkok, Thailand, Sept. 5, 2020.

Thailand’s largely decentralized protest movement and evolving internet landscape will make it tough for the country's conservative government to mute mounting calls to rein in the country's powerful monarchy, observers say.

Human rights lawyer Anon Nampa broke a decades-long taboo by challenging the king's powers in public at a pro-democracy protest in the capital, Bangkok, on August 3. At another protest a week later, activists unveiled a bold 10-point plan to reform the monarchy that would, among other things, bar the royal palace from expressing political opinions and repeal a defamation law that can land any critic of the king in jail for up to 15 years.

Their demands have ricocheted around the country at student-led protests calling for a new constitution and an end to the government of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha, who led a successful military coup in 2014 and prevailed in an election last year widely seen as rigged. His government has staked much of its reputation on a promise to protect and preserve the monarchy, which many Thais still revere as semi-divine.

Young and restless

Younger Thais are less enamored. They make up the bulk of the pro-democracy protesters and see a royal palace playing politics well beyond its constitutional constraints to maintain the status quo.

Prayut had warned the protesters to steer clear of criticizing the monarchy back in June and said they "really went too far" after the August 10 rally where activists read out their 10-point reform plan.

Since then authorities have arrested more than a dozen activists and charged them with a spate of offenses from sedition to incitement. Anon, the human rights lawyer, was among them.

But David Streckfuss, an independent scholar and author on Thai history and politics, said the arrests are unlikely to stop a movement that seems to lack a clear central leadership.

"These people are representatives of a movement, not so much leaders where you can take out the top tier and everything goes quiet," he told VOA.

Now that "the genie is out of the bottle," Streckfuss added, the government will have to decide whether to try and manage a public debate on the monarchy that has been brewing below the surface for years or to crush it.

"I would say that it would require a great deal of suppression at this point to quiet what's been on a lot of people's mind for ... more than a decade," he said.

The dilemma

The military has tried to smother dissent before. In the wake of the 2014 coup, Prime Minister Prayut's junta rounded up hundreds of activists, academics and journalists it saw as threats, with some success.

The junta then spent the next five years preparing for the 2019 election to make Thailand at least look something like a democracy again. Streckfuss said Prayut's rebranded regime may be reluctant to throw all that work away with more mass arrests and will at least think twice before it does. There was also the risk, he added, that a much heavier hand from authorities will backfire by drawing even more people to the protesters' cause.

If the calls for royal reform do continue to grow and spread, they could also spark violence, warned Pavin Chachavalpongpun, an associate professor at Japan's Kyoto University who studies Thai politics.

"I think the government will continue to rely on legal instruments for now. But should the students intensify their protests then there is a possibility of the use of force," he said. "The students [will] not back down on their demand. So it is a great test of the government's patience."

Titipol Phakdeewanich, head of the political science faculty at Thailand's Ubon Ratchathani University, said the arrests won't stop the reform calls at the protests but may still slow them down. He said security forces recently threatened to sue one of his own students over a Facebook post about the monarchy.

Others have already been sued or arrested for posting critical comments or merely sharing news about the king, Maha Vajiralongkorn.

"This actually makes students quite scared of the consequence," Titipol said.

Compared with taking to the streets, though, he still sees the internet as a relative "safe zone" where talk of reforming the monarchy has mushroomed and will prove even tougher to quell.

A digital revolution

On August 24 Facebook acceded to government demands to block access in Thailand to the "Royal Marketplace," a Facebook account critical of the monarchy with more than one million members set up by Pavin, or face legal action under the country's Computer Crimes Act. By the end of the month, a new account under a similar name had attracted nearly all the old members back — with access in Thailand.

Over the past several months, tens of thousands of Thai have also switched from Twitter to an alternative social media platform, Minds, over reports that Twitter users posting comments criticizing the king were getting visits from police. Twitter's new privacy policy had as well raised fears that it would be more prone to sharing data with the government.

"The government cannot entirely stop this generation to think or to look for alternative sources of information," Titipol said. "It is not that easy in the 21st century with all kinds of technologies and different platforms of social media."

The spread of encrypted messaging also makes it harder for authorities to track and block accounts selectively, "so the landscape [has] changed," said Arthit Suriyawongkul, co-founder of the Thai Netizen Network, a digital rights advocacy group.

A government could in theory block access to entire platforms, as in China, or the way Thailand itself did with Facebook for a few days after the 2014 coup. But Arthit said the social media giants have become so vital to Thai businesses, and to the government's own propaganda, that the authorities will hesitate to pull that trigger.

Blunt force, he said, "no longer works in the new setting of the internet.”