At 4:45 a.m., Pavin Chachavalpongpun and his partner stood face to face with a man who had broken into their house in Kyoto, Japan, dressed all in black. His partner immediately jumped out of bed and ran after the intruder, but the culprit was able to escape out the front door. Meanwhile, Chachavalpongpun began to feel a burning sensation on his skin—the intruder had chemically sprayed him before fleeing the building. Although the police arrived soon thereafter and began to investigate, Chachavalpongpun already knew who was behind the attack: the Thai government.
“The moment that I woke up and saw this man for one to two seconds in the dark, I knew it,” Chachavalpongpun told The Politic about the incident, which occurred on July 8, 2019.
Chachavalpongpun, an associate professor at Kyoto University and a Thai dissident, has long been a vocal critic of Thailand’s military-led government and constitutional monarchy—stances that have made him a subject of interest to the Thai government. Authorities issued a warrant for Chachavalpongpun’s arrest five years earlier, and he claims to have faced constant harassment from the government and its supporters ever since.
The Thailand government has denied any involvement in the attack, and the Japan police are still investigating the incident. However, Chachavalpongpun’s early morning encounter would not be the first time that Thailand was accused of committing state violence across international borders. Over the years, nine critics of the Thai monarchy have disappeared and been presumed dead in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos.
“It is widely believed and has been said by activists at protests that those actions were done at the behest of the king,” Dr. Tyrell Haberkorn, a professor of Southeast Asian Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said in an interview with The Politic. King Maha Vajiralongkorn took over the throne in 2016 after the death of his father, King Bhumibol. While King Bhumibol was a beloved figure in the public, the current king has not yet been able to achieve the same level of reverence.
In recent months, thousands of protesters have descended upon Thailand’s streets, revolting against government attempts to censor its most prominent critics. The protests, although concentrated in Bangkok, have spanned the country and are largely organized by student leaders, who call for democratic reforms to the country’s military-led government and an end to the harassment of government critics. The movement has outlined three key demands: Democratic changes to the constitution, ending harassment of government critics, and the dissolution of the current parliament. They are some of the largest mass demonstrations the country has witnessed in decades.
The first sparks of protest can be traced back to Thailand’s 2014 military coup, in which the country’s current Prime Minister, Prayuth Chan-o-cha, assumed power after his military forces ousted the democratically-elected government. It was Thailand’s 13th coup since 1932 when the country’s absolute monarchy came to an end with the Siamese Revolution. Since assuming power, Chan-o-cha has made repeated changes that many say blatantly increase his military power, such as enacting a new constitution.
In 2017, a military-appointed committee wrote a new constitution, following a national referendum the previous year. The new constitution gives the military government authority to issue orders against activity the government sees as a threat to national security or the monarchy. It also created an army-appointed upper house with six seats reserved for the military and a proportional voting system to reduce the influence of political parties.
In March of 2019, Thailand held democratic elections for the first time since the 2014 coup. After Chan-o-cha’s party won the elections, critics claimed that the process was manipulated in order to keep Chan-o-cha in power.
“The constitution was written in such a way that even though elections were being held, the balance of power and the fact that it was in the hands of the military wasn’t going to change,” Haberkorn said.
In February of 2020, the Thai Constitutional Court dissolved the progressive Future Forward Party, a leading opposition party in the 2019 elections, claiming that the party violated financial rules. The party had represented the hopes of young Thai voters for a democratic future, and its dissolution served as a catalyst for these past months of dissatisfaction and large-scale student protests.
“The current government has lost a tremendous amount of legitimacy because of the way the election was handled, the many corruption scandals that the military has faced, and [because] the economy is terrible,” Haberkorn said. “Even people who might have not cared before are not supporting [the government] because they are being affected directly.”
As the COVID-19 pandemic erupted across the globe, the movement waned for a time as Thailand enforced emergency restrictions and guidelines. However, in July, protests flared once again after the unexplained disappearance of Thai pro-democracy dissident Wanchalerm Satsaksit on Thursday, June 4. Satsaksit became the ninth in a long list of dissidents presumed to have been killed by the Thai government in the past two years.
On Wednesday, August 26, demonstrations in Bangkok erupted in full force once more, drawing crowds of over 10,000 people. But protesters returned with a new demand: reforming the royal monarchy.
Although officially a constitutional monarchy, Thailand’s government is largely controlled by King Maha Vajiralongkorn. The king must approve every change in governmental power, including the 12 successful coups that have occurred since 1932.
The monarchy’s influence also pervades the criminal justice system. Above the judges’ panel in every courtroom hangs one picture of the current king and one of his father.
“The judges view their role not as serving the people, but as serving the king,” Haberkorn explained.
Another point of contention among the Thai public is the monarchy’s assets. Although the king’s private assets have historically been kept separate from public funding of the monarchy, when King Vajiralongkorn assumed power in 2016, he activated a clause in the country’s constitution that grants him personal control over all funds—including those from public taxes.
“That’s why the protesters are on the streets today,” Chachavalpongpun explained. “Because they want immediate reform of the monarchy. Because the monarchy has been too long here now controlling [and] dominating Thai politics. If you want to only tackle the issue with the government, you only do it on the surface without going deep into the root of the crisis—which is the monarchy.”
In the past, few people were willing to openly criticize the monarchy. Thailand’s lese-majeste laws—among the strictest in the world—make it illegal to offend, defame, or threaten the king or the royal family. Even insulting the monarchy can lead to a prison sentence of up to 15 years.
Chachavalpongpun is familiar with these laws. Two days after the 2014 coup, he found himself on a list of people summoned by the new Thai government for an “attitude adjustment” due to his criticisms of the monarchy. Chachavalpongpun immediately rejected the summon.
“First I thought I did nothing wrong,” Chachavalpongpun said. “Being critical, why should I be wrong?”
About a week later, he was on the receiving end of another summon. He decided to ignore the second one as well. Two weeks later, the Thai government issued a warrant for his arrest.
As Chachavalpongpun was in Japan when his arrest warrant was issued, the Thai government revoked his passport, forcing him to apply for refugee status in Japan. Even then, his troubles were not over. He recalled experiencing harassment from the Thai government and Royalists—Thai government supporters—whenever he traveled abroad for the next two years until the recent attack in his home.
“I think what bothered them is basically my position vis-à-vis the monarchy rather than the government,” said Chachavalpongpun. “Because at least you do not have laws against those criticizing the government, but you definitely have laws against those criticizing the monarchy.”
In addition to demanding democratic reforms of their government, Thai student leaders are also calling for a 10-point reform of the monarchy that includes cutting the king’s budget, separating his private funds from the crown’s assets, and ending the lese-majeste laws.
“Looking at the Twitter hashtags, it’s clear that more people than ever are questioning the institution of the monarchy and its role in the polity,” said Haberkorn. “And that hasn’t happened [before]. That’s a new phenomenon.”
Netiwit Chotiphatphaisal is a 24-year-old student pushing for reforms in Thailand’s education system, which includes advocating against the Thai military’s presence in schools. He was one of the many activists in attendance at a recent protest on Saturday, September 19.
“We lived in fear about [protesting] for many years, for hundreds of years maybe, so [it is] very amazing to have that happen,” Chotiphatphaisal said in an interview with The Politic.
Many of the first protests were student-led, emerging in schools and universities across the country. Chotiphatphaisal believes that students are particularly invested because they have grown up in political unrest and are concerned about their futures. He also stated that students’ fewer formal responsibilities allow them to “take a chance and do what their conscience demands of them.”
“Many of these people grew up under Prayuth, under the military regime, without real freedom,” Chotiphatphaisal said. “I suppose these are really the ones who see themselves inheriting this kind of society.”
Chachavalpongpun also believes that social media has emboldened students to openly challenge the monarchy.
“Social media is sort of like a platform for the younger generation to express their political opinion,” Chachavalpongpun said. “From cyberspace, it has been transported to the street.”
Chachavalpongpun is no stranger to the power of social media—and the threat that it presents to the Thai government. During the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown, when Chachavalpongpun was stuck at home, he started a Facebook page called the Royalist Marketplace.
“I thought to myself, ‘Hmm, they have a real marketplace,’” Chachavalpongpun said. “Why can’t I set up a kind of marketplace where people come and trade ideas and opinions, especially about the monarchy?”
Within four months, the page garnered over one million followers with people from all over Thailand and abroad accessing the page. That’s when the government took notice.
The Thai government ordered Facebook to shut down the Royalist Marketplace, which Facebook refused to do. The government then ordered Facebook to block access to the page in Thailand and threatened to charge the company under the Computer Crimes Act if it did not comply. Chachavalpongpun said that his page was blocked in Thailand on Monday, August 24.
Chachavalpongpun immediately decided to set up another Facebook group. That page now has over 2.1 million members and is still accessible in Thailand.
“[The government] knows that this is a cat and mouse thing,” Chachavalpongpun said. “You close it down. I opened it… I can open it every time it is closed down.”
Not everyone, however, agrees with the 10-point demands for reforming the monarchy that the protesters have detailed—or is willing to state their support publicly.
“There are a lot of people that want to see changes, but do not want to get their hands dirty,” Chachavalpongpun said.
A Thai graduate student studying in the U.S., who wished to remain anonymous, noted that the protests are particularly contentious because of the generational shift the movement represents.
“Thailand is super hierarchical,” the student explained in an interview with The Politic. Young people’s place at the forefront of this movement “upsets a lot of the traditional norms that people, especially in the older generation, are just not comfortable with.”
The older generation grew up with the former King Bhumibol who many felt profound love and respect for, as Haberkorn explains. On the other hand, the current king is a much more controversial figure and is not as well-liked by the public, especially the youth.
The student explained how, even within families, members are conflicted over the issue. In the student’s own family, relatives have accused the student protesters of being barbaric and attacking the police.
“I saw the footage,” the student said. “The students did not attack the police.… But they buy into it. So there is a real tension between the young and the old, and I don’t think it is going away anytime soon.”
Even those that have taken the radical step of calling for reforms to the monarchy are not calling for a complete dissolution of the monarchical system.
“They don’t want to be killed,” said Haberkorn. “That’s why, last week, when people started calling for a republic, it was truly remarkable.”
Recently, on Sunday, November 8, Thailand riot police fired water cannons at crowds of protesters who gathered in Bangkok’s Grand Palace to deliver letters to the king calling for reform. The incident marks the second time water cannons have been used against protesters in the last few months.
Even though King Vajiralongkorn has not invoked the lese-majeste laws against any of the protesters yet, the government is still arresting student protest leaders. The threat of violence still looms.
Despite the protesters’ demands for democratic reform, the future and stability of Thailand remain unclear. Many wonder whether it is possible for constitutional reform to take place or if Thailand will once again face a coup and return to a military dictatorship.
According to Haberkorn, the trajectory depends on a multitude of factors, including what the army, current Prime Minister and cabinet, and king all decide to do. However, she believes that the smart thing to do is to agree to the demands for reform.
“The calls for reform are growing. And they’re not going to go away,” said Haberkorn. “Even if the main 20 leaders were arrested and imprisoned right now, another 20 people would rise to take their place. That’s the stage where things are.”
The Thai graduate student explained how neither side looks like it is going to concede. But he believes the window for discussion and compromise is still open and that it is still possible to reach an agreement.
“The country is not okay,” the student said. “You can’t just keep faking democracy. You can’t keep abusing human rights—making people disappear.”
Chachavalpongpun continues to be a fierce critic of the government and the monarchy, despite—and perhaps “even more so” because—they have compromised his safety and exiled him from his home country.
“Would you want to compromise just because you feel fear? Then you would have to stop everything….” Chachavalpongpun said. “I am a Thai person. I just wish [for] my country to be more democratic. I hope that whatever I say and whatever I do—that would help towards, even in a tiny way, the democratization process in my own country. So that’s why I would never stop.”