A youth revolution is brewing in Thailand. The generational-cum-ideological clash is taking place online, and on the streets of Bangkok and beyond.
Over the past few months, monarchy-reform protesters have staged protests week after week. The dissolution in February of the Future Forward party, hugely popular among young voters, alienated many young Thais, spurring them to seek change outside of the parliamentary system.
Hundreds gathered at Democracy Monument in Bangkok after Arnon Nampa, a human rights lawyer and political activist, in August publicly called for reforms of the monarchy.
Since then, the number and determination of the protesters has only grown. On Oct. 16, after most leaders were arrested two days earlier, unarmed protesters resisted police in riot gear who used a high-pressure water cannon laced with chemical irritants and blue dye to identify the protesters. At least a dozen were arrested, as were about 60 more in subsequent protests.
At the heart of the protesters’ demands has been not their call for the immediate resignation of Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, a former junta leader who staged a coup in 2014, or the drafting of a new democratic constitution, but the desire to reform the Thai monarchy.
Unlike in the UK or Japan, the Thai public and press routinely censor themselves from stating anything mildly critical of the monarchy. Negative news or information about the king is rarely aired, blocking any meaningful critical discussion of the monarchy.
Yet, with the explosion in social media and smartphone use in recent years, the efficacy of this censorship has been eroded.
Thailand’s mainstream media have been bypassed, and a number of Twitter users and Facebook groups now frequently disseminate information critical of the monarchy.
This happens despite the climate of fear that continues to be backed by the anachronistic and draconian lese-majesty law, which carries a maximum imprisonment term of 15 years per count.
Many older Thais, particularly royalists and ultra-royalists, have faced a rude and hurtful awakening as they realize that tens of thousands of young protesters do not share their reverence for the crown. Some protesters have openly expressed aspirations to see the Kingdom of Thailand turn into the Republic of Thailand, not only on social media, but at protest sites.
This new generation, aged between 15 and 25, wants change. They do not want to inherit an old Thailand where fundamental rights such as freedom of expression are suspended in the name of reverence to the king. They want a new and freer Thailand where publicly criticizing the king, or queen, is not a crime, but a fundamental right.
Young Thai protesters want to make sure that if there is yet another coup attempt, King Vajiralongkorn, who ascended the throne after his popular father, King Bhumibol, died in October 2016, will not endorse it — as his late father did many times by putting his signature to orders effectively legitimizing a coup.
On average, Thailand has experienced one military coup every seven years since the end of absolute monarchy in 1932.
Other demands include controlling the amount of taxpayers’ money funding the privileged lifestyle of the royal family. With the king’s net worth estimated this month at about US$40 billion by the Financial Times, the Thai king is one of the richest monarchs in the world.
Meanwhile, the minimum wage of a Thai worker is US$5 a day.
Many young protesters I have spoken to over the past weeks feel strongly that reform at the very top of Thai society is absolutely necessary.
Among the protesters arrested last week, three were accused of intending to block the royal motorcade and do harm to the queen, including a 20-year-old student leader, Bunkueanun Paothong.
He now faces a maximum of life imprisonment under Article 110 of the Criminal Code.
It speaks volumes about how unequal Thai law is when it comes to protecting ordinary Thais versus the crown.
The lifting of the week-long state of emergency in Bangkok on Thursday last week might offer a temporary reprise.
However, the heavy-handed dispersal of unarmed and young protesters, and the arrests of protest leaders, did not succeed in breaking the will of the protesters.
In fact more came out, bonded by a common desire to overcome the strong-arm tactics of the Thai government.
Instead of becoming leaderless, the protest movement has deployed guerrilla flash-mob tactics similar to those in Hong Kong.
Thai protesters say that they have learned much from their peers in Hong Kong — such as to all wear black, making individuals indistinguishable from the crowd; to avoid having a single identifiable leader; and to use encrypted social media apps, such as Telegram, to circumvent possible state censorship.
An online alliance exists among democracy activists in Thailand, Taiwan and Hong Kong, called the Milk Tea Alliance.
Royalists and ultra-royalists, most not in their teens or 20s, but much older, have become increasingly hurt as their world order falls away before their eyes.
To them, reverence for the monarchy is like a religion: a reverence to God, or at least a semi-divine figure in a society where the dominant religion, Buddhism, does not have one.
To royalists, the monarchy is also a symbol of national unity and continuation.
Many in the older generation chose reverence over the right to freedom of expression a long time ago. That reverence is now on a head-on collision course with the demands of the young protesters.
While it is still too early to call the revolt a success, an ideological tectonic shift, which is irrevocable, is taking place in Thailand.
Maybe it is time for the older generation to step aside and let the youth shape the Thailand of tomorrow.
Pravit Rojanphruk is a Thai journalist who works as a senior staff writer for Khaosod English. He was awarded the International Press Freedom award from the Committee to Protect Journalists in 2017.
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