Thailand’s King Maha Vajiralongkorn gives a speech from the balcony of Suddhaisavarya Prasad Hall of the Grand Palace during a public audience on May 6, 2019. Image credit: SPhotograph / Shutterstock.com
When I arrived in Bangkok last year for my six-month internship at the Danish Embassy, I was met with genuine and kind interactions wherever I went: from street vendors, night-market sellers, professors, students, or my Thai colleagues at the embassy. But that vanished when I asked about contemporary politics—or more specifically, the controversies surrounding the King of Thailand.
From that point onward, the conversation turned quiet and awkward. This was my first lesson in Thai politics and its intertwined themes: honor culture, patriotism, and the struggle over freedom of speech.
Thailand is now facing a crucial period that will determine its future as a democracy. Although a new election has been on the horizon for years, when King Maha Vajiralongkorn dissolved parliament last week, he forced a vote within the next 60 days. The Thai people will go to the polls on May 14, 2023.
If Prayut Chan-o-cha, the current prime minister, wins, the military government that took power by force 12 years ago is likely to become an entrenched authoritarian system.
There is resistance, a subtle uproar taking place against the current system, mainly through student-led movements and in online discussions. The popular opposition expresses dissatisfaction with the leadership more generally, but is particularly focused on free speech: the conservative constitution prohibits, among other things, criticism of the monarchy.
This provision, which outlaws most dissent, is known as the lèse-majesté law. Most recently, the law has legally suppressed the student protest movement against the constitution and the monarchy’s far-reaching power. Between 2020 and 2023, over 200 individuals—and 16 children—have been charged under the lèse-majesté law, each facing between three and 15 years in prison.
Venerating the King is an old practice in Thailand. Growing up with a Thai grandmother, I was used to seeing the framed picture of the previous king, Bhumibol Adulyadej, in the middle of her living room: he was praised as a god and the nation’s savior. Coming here as a young adult, I realized that something had changed. Although student protests have been happening in Thailand off and on for almost l40 years, more recently, venerating the King was no longer central to political life. The first pro-democracy rallies in 1973 were met with a bloody response by the Thai military: 77 people died. Yet over the next several decades, attitudes towards politics had evolved as the country’s leadership see-sawed between governments backed by youth-led pro-democracy groups and monarchists heavily supported by the military.
Thailand’s monarchy is a hugely important institution and has traditionally served as a mediator between the people, the government, and the military. For example, in 1992, political turmoil culminated in yet another deadly event, where 50 participants died protesting a military coup during “Black May.” King Bhumibol intervened, brokered a peace, and steered the country to democracy and a new constitution.
But the monarchy has also been a barrier to democracy in Thailand, serving (along with the government and the military) as one leg of a power triangle that often renders voting irrelevant. Scholars call this structure “The Network Monarchy,” a political configuration that acquires more power in every new constitution and guards each element’s interests against popular movements. What it doesn’t do is create accountability or stability. During King Bhumibol’s 70-year reign, Thailand experienced 10 coups and 17 new constitutions.
The most recent military coup happened in 2014, when the current prime minister Chan-o-cha came to power promising to “restore order in the face of street demonstrations.” This military junta, with Chan-o-cha as its leader, promised to stay in power only until a new capable prime minister and cabinet were found.
However, he has managed to stay in power ever since and will run for election again in May.
There is a recurring pattern in Thai history: youth-led protests followed by a military coup followed by the King’s intervention followed by a new constitution—and always benefitting these three elements of Thailand’s political elite. Because of this pattern, despite the strength of pro-democracy movements, fundamental changes and the future of Thai democracy often seem out of reach.
Recently, the small Move Forward Party has gained massive support from the student movement and the campaign to eliminate the lèse-majesté law. When I interviewed a couple of university students from Thailand about the coming election in May, I discovered something new: students were less concerned about the result of the election or who was in power than they were about their freedom of speech. One student, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of losing her job at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, argued that the elimination of the lèse-majesté law and anti-monarch movements was a growing focus for resistance.
The forms of resistance are subtle but powerful. When I went to the cinema, people didn’t stand up when the Thai national anthem blasted through the speakers as pictures of King Vajiralongkorn panned across the screen. According to my Thai colleagues, this was almost unheard of in the past.
Dissenters are also emboldened by the declining popularity of the King Vajiralongkorn. Whereas his father, Bhumibol Adulyadej, was loved for his conventional manners and patriotism, Vajiralongkorn has been controversial and is perceived as undignified. He has had scandalous affairs and wears revealing outfits: there was a notorious incident where he appointed his dog Fufu to a position as an Air Force officer.
Dignity matters. Another student from Chulalongkorn University, Phuri Pirunsuntorn, commented: “I feel like the previous King was so good at propagandas that sometimes people would just overlook some of the things that happened. But now, the new King’s scandalous behavior upsets people, even elders. They think: if this is the deity that we should be respecting or should be worshiping, well—not anymore.”
But will this silent uproar against the King and a revived student movement be enough to overturn the current government in the May elections?
The answer to that question might be found on social media. “Twitter is a hot platform among young Thai students, where people raise awareness and get insight into politics,” said my source from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “Especially because you can stay anonymous.”
As has been the case in other countries, social media has helped to fuel the opposition, increasing interest in Thai politics and the upcoming election. For example, two young Thai students decided to maintain a hunger strike until the lèse-majesté law was eliminated. Their action began on January 19 as a statement on Twitter, went viral, and became a political movement supported by other students. The strike ended on March 11, but only due to doctors’ serious concerns about the lives of protesters who had not eaten and barely drunk water for almost two months.
Phuri has his concerns with parties with the radical ideological views of groups like the Move Forward Party: he sees them as single-issue organizations that cater to youth rather than doing anything substantial. “It seems like they are pleasing the younger generation, and I wonder, would that really be effective?” Phuri asked. “Or would that be causing or prompting more problems for the future?”
In May, Phuri will enter the voting-booth with mixed feelings. “I honestly don’t know what I should hope for in the future,” he told me. “What I want to see, I think, is a modern and young government. They never really had a chance to do anything meaningful, ever. I feel like a lot of young people have ideas and have thoughts that are interesting, creative in how to manage the country.”
Unfortunately, this ambivalence may be widespread. Despite support for the Move Forward Party from students, current polls predict victory for Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-chan and his conservative cronies and monarchists in a competition against the Pheu Thai Party leader, 36-year-old Paetongtarn Shinawatra, daughter of exiled former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
Experts are also already noticing the current regime maneuvering to undermine a free election. As Joshua Kurlantzick, a senior fellow at the Council of Foreign Relations, has observed: “Instead of just letting parliament end naturally, and making May 7 election day, Prayuth dissolved parliament to make May 14 election day. There was no reason to push the election back a week—except perhaps that May 14 is also exam day for students across the country.”
The May election will be a pivotal moment for Thailand’s democratic future; yet at the moment, any outcome seems possible. Should Prayuth prevail, authoritarianism will become further entrenched in Thailand. But if Paetongtarn Shinawatra wins a surprise victory, the hope for a free society and the elimination of the lèse-majesté law can be kept alive.
Of course, that outcome could always be reversed by another military coup. It would not be the first time in history that a dissatisfied monarch and military have solved their problems by force.
Tobias Lentz is an editorial intern at Public Seminar and an MA candidate in Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism at The New School.