Where older generations chose reverence, young Thais are demanding freedom of speech and basic rights
A protester with riot police during a protest calling for reform of the monarchy in Bangkok, Thailand, 16 October 2020. Photograph: Jorge Silva/Reuters
Fri 23 Oct 2020
A youth revolution is brewing in Thailand. The generational-cum-ideological clash is taking place both 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 of the Future Forward party, hugely popular among young voters, in February alienated many young Thais, spurring them on to seek change outside the parliamentary system. Hundreds gathered at Democracy Monument in Bangkok after Arnon Nampa, a human rights lawyer and political activist, publicly called for reforms of the monarchy in August. Since then, the number and determination of the protesters has only grown. On 16 October, after most leaders were arrested two days earlier, unarmed protesters resisted police in riot gear using high-pressure water cannon, laced with chemical irritants and blue dye to identify the protesters. At least a dozen were arrested, as were around 60 more in subsequent protests.
At the heart of the protesters’ demands has been not their call for the immediate resignation of the prime minister, Gen Prayut 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 United Kingdom 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 has 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 realise 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.