Whatever happened to the monarchy reform movement that sparked massive protests two years ago? Is the movement still around?
Not so, key leaders told Prachatai English, arguing that support for reform is gaining momentum. But they also acknowledge that translating the sentiment into concrete action is a challenge, especially if political parties continue to steer clear of the issue.
A container barricade was set up to prevent protesters from approaching the Royal Palace. (File photo)
Nearly two years ago, human rights lawyer turned activist Anon Nampa –dressed as Harry Potter – took up a loudspeaker and called upon his supporters to do what was essentially a decades-long taboo: reform the Thai monarchy and bringing it under the constitution’s restraints for good.
“Talking about this is not an act to topple the monarchy,” Anon said on 8 August 2020, at the small rally covered by few mainstream media outlets. “But to allow the monarchy to exist in Thai society in the right way and legitimately under a democratic and a constitutional monarchy.”
His plea was soon answered, with an estimated tens of thousands taking to the streets and demanding a series of reforms to the royal institution. But that was two years ago. Three months into 2022, no protest on a similar scale has taken place so far, and the bold call for reforms, which at one point were central to political debates raging everywhere, seems to remain as ever the untouchable subject in parliament.
“The trend has slowed down somewhat, that’s the nature of these things,” Anon told Prachatai English on Tuesday, a day after he was released from prison on charges related to defaming the monarchy, known as lèse majesté.
Despite the low turnout at recent protests, Anon and other key leaders of the reform movement interviewed for this story said they’re confident that support for a more limited monarchy has not only outlasted the protests, but grown even more widespread. But they also acknowledged that translating the sentiment into concrete action is a challenge, especially if political parties continue to steer clear of the issue.
“It’s not dead,” said Chonticha Jaeng-rew, an activist who helped organize many of the reform protests, when asked about the current state of the movement.
“It has had a tangible and clear impact on society,” she went on. “But the way the movement expresses itself may have changed.”
Environment of Fear
While sporadic protests were held in the past months, such as a “car mob” on 30 January and a brief rally at Siam Paragon shopping mall on 8 February, none of them were close to the peak of the reform protests back in late 2020, when key intersections and roads in Bangkok were often swamped by the sheer number of demonstrators.
Reforming the monarchy is one of the three major demands of the pro-democracy movement. The other two call for the immediate resignation of Prime Minister Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha, who has been in power since the coup he staged in 2014, and more democratic amendments to the Constitution, which was drafted under the auspices of the junta regime.
Monarchy reform activist Anon Nampa raises the three-finger salute outside Bangkok Remand Prison on 28 February 2022.
The activists interviewed for this story cited several factors for the decline in turnout, such as the lingering threats of the coronavirus pandemic – especially the more contagious omicron variant that emerged in late 2021 – the frequent use of force by the police in protests, the harsh legal backlash, and harassment by the authorities.
“I have to admit that the size of protests about [monarchy] reform has dropped significantly. That’s a fact,” Chonticha said. “But I have to point out here that you should also look at the circumstances. There’s Covid, legal cases, imprisonment, and violent crackdowns. All of these led to an environment that affected people’s confidence.”
She continued, “So it’s not strange that demonstrations can no longer meet our goals, with all this intimidation. But our demands are not dead.”
The uptick in police violence witnessed at protest sites, such as the use of teargas, water cannon, and rubber-tipped bullets, is well documented by the media and rights watchdogs.
In its annual report, the National Human Rights Commission criticized police tactics and the sweeping arrests of demonstrators as “disproportionate” as well as “causing fear to those who exercise their freedom of assembly.”
Police fire water cannon laced with teargas agents at pro-democracy demonstrators in Bangkok on 16 October 2020.
“We were putting a lot of pressure on the government back then, but it also came at the price of protesters being hurt,” Anon said. “So it’s not worth it.”
Public gatherings remain banned under the Emergency Decree, which the government enacted in March 2020 with the stated aim of controlling the coronavirus outbreak. Violation of the ban carries a maximum sentence of 2 years in prison.
The Law Strikes Back
The barrage of legal action against monarchy reform advocates, too, has become seemingly more indiscriminate.
Thai Lawyers for Human Rights (TLHR) which provides legal assistance to those charged with royal defamation, said criminal complaints on the charge of royal defamation were filed against at least 173 people since November 2020, when Prayut said all legal options, including lèse majesté, would be pursued in response to the monarchy reform protests – a drastic U-turn to his own pledge five months earlier not to use the law against critics of the monarchy.
“The case number is still rising every day,” Yaowalak Anuphan, the TLHR Director said by phone. “It’s become a daily charge now.”
At least 14 individuals facing lèse majesté charges are minors, the group says, while others were charged over dubious incidents like pointing a foot at a portrait of King Vajiralongkorn and donning traditional Thai outfits similar to members of the Royal Family.
Police officers take a protester opposed to the royal insult law into custody in Bangkok on 26 February 2022.
Just this Friday, a court found a man guilty of lèse majesté for placing a sticker over a giant portrait of King Vajiralongkorn during a protest close to the Grand Palace on 19 September 2020. The court handed down a 2-year sentence to the defendant, who has appealed.
Yaowalak notes that many cases weren’t even brought against the activists by the police, but by online ultraroyalist groups who comb through social media for photos or videos of actions that allegedly offend the monarchy. Because the law is a national security issue, lèse majesté complaints can be filed by any individual, at any police station.
A number of protest leaders were also jailed and denied bail for months, including Arnon, who was only released earlier this week, after spending time behind bars since October.
“I think it’s a good thing that they put me in prison, because the movement can grow on its own,” Anon said by phone. “It’s worth it. The government is probing blindly. They can’t put a finger on people who are still active in the movement.”
But imprisonment, and the subsequent freedom, come with a long lasting effect on the ability of key activists to hold and organize protests. Bail granted to the monarchy reform leaders typically come with a condition that bans them from “causing unrest” or engaging in protests.
The impact was vivid enough when Prachatai English reached out to reform activist Panusaya Sithijirawattanakul for her comments on the current state of the movement. Panusaya declined a phone interview, saying she had to be careful in her remarks lest they contravene the bail conditions set by the court.
Panusaya “Rung” Sithijirawattanakul throws the scripts of her speech after reading the 10-point demands for monarchy reforms at the rally inside Thammasat University on 10 Augusut 2020.
Writing in chat messages to a reporter, Panusaya echoed the same assessment shared by her peers: that the demonstrations may have declined in size, but the monarchy reform agenda remains an active topic of conversation for many people.
“In terms of numbers, it may not look like it’s growing or becoming a main trend in society like in the early stages, but in terms of popular consciousness, the issue is working on itself,” she wrote. “The conversation about this hasn’t stopped, as seen in interviews, academic works, panel discussions, and even rallies that still often take place.”
Another legal blow came in November, when the Constitution Court ruled that the calls for monarchy reform put forth by Panusaya and other leaders amounted to attempts to overthrow the royal institution. The same ruling bars the activists and any other individuals from committing the same offence.
Political Third Rail
Despite the fact that discussions about the monarchy have indeed become more commonplace in recent years, especially on social media, the issue has yet to be afforded a serious debate in parliament, where 208 of the 475 seats are controlled by the opposition.
The 10-point demands for monarchy reform stated by the activists include abolishing the lèse majesté law, opening the royal assets held personally by King Vajiralongkorn to public scrutiny, forbidding the monarch from making political comments, and ending one-sided public relations efforts from the palace, among others.
An online petition to amend the royal defamation law has attracted at least 240,000 signatures as of publication time. Several political parties, supported by many protesters, such as Pheu Thai and Move Forward, have at least expressed their willingness to discuss the proposed amendment in parliament, yet no serious effort has been made on that front so far.
Chonticha, who recently debuted as a MP candidate for Move Forward Party at the next election, said she’s aware of the failings of elected lawmakers who appear reluctant to touch the issue.
“Speaking frankly, I’m disappointed by the MPs who haven’t opened themselves up or embraced the same courage as ordinary people who fought on the streets and went to jail,” Chonticha said. “MPs in our country aren’t brave enough to make their own stance. We should have a safe space in parliament for them to do so.”
The activist and MP candidate also defended some moves by her party to address the monarchy’s influence over politics in parliamentary debates, such as the budget given to the royal military command and how the palace allegedly interfered in the appointment of key police positions. But she said that much more could have been done.
“I have to concede that it’s not enough. Political parties should do more,” Chonticha said. “But it’s a good start.”
Panusaya insisted that reforming the monarchy is not the same as toppling the institution, and that abolition of lèse majesté is a viable action to take. She called on the voters to prod their elected lawmakers to take up the matter in parliament.
“I think if the political parties do not have a consensus from their own voters, they might not have the courage to take action on something on this large a scale,” Panusaya said. “This is very important: The public must join hands together and tell their MPs to talk about these issues.”
Anon was less optimistic. “If any party includes reform of the monarchy in their policy, they’ll definitely get punished, probably disbanded, even. Especially after the ruling by the Constitutional Court,” he said, though he agreed that politicians should be more proactive.
Against these grim outlooks, all three activists said they believe the monarchy reform agenda has scored a victory to a certain degree. They cited the widespread awareness about the need to reform the institution, the rise of a counter-culture, and more discussions about equality and human rights in general.
“I think our big success is cultural soft power, like the culture about not standing up in cinemas, and conversations about social issues in public,” Panusaya said.
“Our society has changed a lot. People are more aware about defending their rights. Smaller people become bolder challenging those in power. A lot of social issues get discussed more frankly. New generations are coming out to advocate for rights on behalf of others.”
She added, “For me, the fact that many people are willing to fight for their rights is a success.”
Protesters calling for monarchy reforms flash the three-finger salute at a royal motorcade in Bangkok on 13 October 2020.
In November, a report published by a polling firm called Superpoll said a vast majority, or 96 percent, of its 1,083 respondents oppose attempts to undermine the monarchy. Similar surveys by Superpoll are often cited by government officials and pro-establishment figures to frame monarchy reform as an agenda pursued by a fringe minority.
But the legal restrictions like lèse majesté mean there is no reliable opinion survey that can gauge the mood toward the monarchy, or measure the popularity of the Royal Family within different age groups. Reform advocates maintain there’s already a large shift toward irreverence among the younger generations.
“I don’t want you to only look at the monarchy reform issue,” Anon said. “You should look at the wider issue about equality. It’s deeply rooted now. People have come a long way … There’s more to it than having people on the street. It’s about conscience. There may not be a lot of visible actions, but it’s inside the conscience.”
Chonticha said she’s encountered more people who share her opinion about monarchy reform, citing her experience in talking with voters in the district where she’s aiming to run. She also pledged to speak out in parliament about the monarchy’s role in politics if elected.
“If we expect things to change in just two years, that’s impossible. If we have that kind of expectation, we’ll end up in disappointment and burnout.” said Chonticha, who began her role in activism by opposing the military coup in 2014.
“Look at how far we’ve come from 2014. It’s already a success, by writing a new chapter in history,” she said. “We should be more generous to ourselves.”
The next protest affiliated with the reform agenda is said to be taking place on 18 March. A group called Draconis Revolution posted on its social media platforms a call for people to gather at the Emerald Buddha Temple on that day to “greet” King Vajiralongkorn.