Inside Story

Thailand’s X factors

Can a detached and inexperienced king cope with an unprecedented shift in popular sentiment?

Nicholas Farrelly 3 September 2020 1377 words

Testing the boundaries: a student protesting in Bangkok on Monday with a banner showing pro-democracy students killed at Thammasat University in October 1976 that reads, “Don’t Let Them Die in Vain.” Rungroj Yongrit/EPA

When King Bhumibol Adulyadej died in 2016, Thailand mourned the loss of the only monarch that most of his subjects could remember. His elevation to the throne seventy years earlier, at a time of national turbulence, had been greeted by low expectations and quiet hopes of stability. But he ended up outliving most of his contemporaries, guiding the kingdom through coups and rebellions into periods of openness, economic success and relative political strength.

King Bhumibol’s final years were punctuated by concerns, often only whispered, about his heir’s suitability. The succession itself proved mostly uncontroversial: King Vajiralongkorn, the tenth in the Chakri dynasty, took the throne and then, as had become his habit, disappeared from the kingdom.

This created a void that was previously filled by a carefully calibrated royal aura. The void has grown larger, fuelled by rumours about the king’s lifestyle and temper, and concern about the royal family’s political role.

Under King Bhumibol, even palace critics tended to grudgingly accept the benevolent work of royal charities and the sacred centre’s steadying influence. Nobody sees King Vajiralongkorn as a guiding hand, and now, for the first time in many years, young Thais are openly defying palace prerogatives.

The protesters, many still in their teens, are testing the boundaries of public discussion with strongly worded placards and a meme-filled digital marketplace of subversive content. Facebook, so often a rallying point in Thai society, has become a battleground for opposing narratives.

The government of former military chief Prayuth Chan-ocha, who took power in the 2014 coup, draws an elected mandate from heavily stage-managed 2019 elections. And although the Constitutional Court has banned political parties that have tested Prayuth’s patience, he has not succeeded in eliminating all dissent. Indeed the pandemic’s economic disruption has offered an opening for some of his fiercest critics.

These critical voices now line up to undermine the long-cultivated story that the military and palace only intervene in politics when there is no other choice. In Bangkok and Chiang Mai, protesters are confronting this narrative of reluctant national saviours with an alternative story about an unaccountable, and undemocratic, consolidation of power and wealth.

It is an awkward time for rulers who have benefited significantly from the bounty of globalisation. For two generations, Thailand’s reputation as a playful, welcoming and well-priced destination has sustained a tourism boom. Few corners of the kingdom have escaped the flows of cashed-up visitors from all around the world, eager to sample delicious cuisine, partake in lively nightlife and explore the beaches, mountains and islands that make for a picture-perfect holiday escape.

Alongside tourism, Thailand built up sizeable manufacturing, service and agricultural sectors, offering good quality at reasonable cost. Medical tourism, automotive production and highly prized rice varieties bulked out an impressive portfolio of exports to the wider world.

It is no surprise that the pandemic hit Thailand hard. Fleets of aircraft were grounded, airports deserted, taxi fleets idle, hotels empty, nightclubs shuttered. While the story has been the same worldwide, first from Wuhan to Milan and now almost everywhere, the Thai economic model has specific vulnerabilities.

In response to the crisis, the government pushed aid to hard-hit households and struggling firms, anxious to avoid financial disaster in a society in which many people sailed close to the wind even before this year’s economic crash. Families often rely on energetic and youthful members to send money back from the big cities or from abroad. Where there is wealth in the most impoverished rural communities, it tends to have been harvested far from home.

Many of the opportunities that have been available to recent generations of entrepreneurial and creative Thais have faded significantly in recent months. Under these troubling conditions, the government has naturally wanted to paint a positive picture of its own response, but not everyone wants to listen.

The young protesters who have called for a new constitution and for the king to step away from politics are betting that the wider public is also fed up with the royalist–military nexus under an uncaring and distant king. It is a risky bet, not only because many Thais harbour deep affection for the palace and its players but also because violence is so often used to settle the country’s most profound disputes.

It is worth remembering that the ongoing civil war in southern Thailand, which reignited back in 2004, shows no end. Muslim separatists have proved resilient on the insurgent battlefield.

Nor is there any expectation that the fault lines exposed by almost two decades of political brawling can disappear. Deposed former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, elected in 2001 and 2005 but booted out in the 2006 coup, is still a lightning rod for strong emotions, with many Thai “reds” eager for his brand of populist politics to return. The ascendant “yellow” royalists, who count the current military leadership as key backers, have worked assiduously to avoid that outcome.

But time doesn’t stand still, especially amid so many other disruptions. The current generation of street protesters, many of whom are in their teens, may not even have been born when Thaksin first took power. The contrast between their expectations and those of their parents and grandparents is a stark one.

This is the first generation of Thais to grow up in an information-saturated digital environment, one in which technology provides ready solutions and ready distractions in so many spheres. While young Thais may have switched off from the official story of royal and military munificence, they have tuned in to an alternative story about Thailand’s history and its future.

And while thousands of protesters are no match for the armed forces or the palace’s power, they benefit from an implicit appreciation, spread all across Thailand, that King Vajiralongkorn is a poor substitute for King Bhumibol. The new king’s long absences and apparent lack of interest in his subjects’ lives are now fodder for ridicule on the streets and online.

Where Thailand goes next will depend on whether decision-makers can apply what has often been an impressive capacity to manage political disquiet. The government will hope that the young protesters, mostly students, will grow tired or perhaps fearful.

Yet the government probably underestimates the depth of feeling and the apparent tactical sophistication of the protesters. Many of them look for inspiration to Hong Kong, where their own generation has gone toe-to-toe with one of the world’s most formidable security establishments. Hong Kong’s student protesters have yet to surrender.

The same can be said of the many popular movements — whether in the United States, through Black Lives Matters, or in Belarus in response to a rigged election — whose opposition to entrenched elites has drawn strength from the turbulent and often tragic events of 2020. The Thai students are, in the same style, asking themselves what they have to lose.

The answer to this question is fraught with the potential for miscalculation and grief. Historically, when Thailand’s powerful forces have been confronted by defiant opposition their response has often proved vindictive and violent. In this case, a campaign to lock up young protest leaders is under way. They are exposed to prosecution under draconian laws that forbid critical reflection on the royal family and heavily restrict online communication.

There is a further X factor. King Vajiralongkorn has never before faced such a confluence of bad news. We don’t know how he will ultimately react. His apparent lack of interest in the kingdom’s affairs may mean that the protests can carry on without a direct response. Right now, we don’t even know whether he cares that he is a target of public scorn.

But if there is a firm response, especially a violent one, the palace risks further undermining its diminished reputation and leaving Thais wondering about royal power’s rightful place. While every Thai constitution has insisted on the king’s exalted position, many Thais simply want a peaceful, prosperous and predictable lifestyle for their families.

The astonishing wealth of the royal family is also getting attention. The bottom line is that during an economic calamity like the one facing Thailand in 2020, lowly subjects with mouths to feed feel that they should also have a chance to share in the spoils. •