Brave Thai students put government in a quandary

Student-led protesters in Bangkok are publicly demanding a fundamental change that was once merely thinkable – reform of the monarchy

Political actors often use symbols to claim legitimacy for their actions. The student-led protest movement in Thailand is making sure the symbolic stars align as they continue their campaign for an end to the military-dominated government and the previously taboo matter of reform of the m0narchy.

As many as 50,000 people protested in an area near Bangkok’s royal precinct on Saturday – the 14th anniversary of the army coup that ousted the government of Thaksin Shinawatra.

The protest continued into Sunday, when students installed an anti-monarchy plaque at Sanam Luang, the royal grounds near the palace. “At this place, the people have expressed their will: that this country belongs to the people,” the inscription said. “[It] is not the property of the monarchy as they have deceived us.”

The plaque has symbolic significance, as it was installed close to another one placed there in 1936, commemorating the end, in 1932 ,of 700 years of absolute monarchy.

That plaque disappeared in April 2017, a day or two before King Maha Vajiralongkorn, in an elaborate ceremony, promulgated the country’s latest constitution.

The dress code for foreign guests was white-tie-and-tails and people who attended said Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha crawled across the floor to receive the document from the king, who was sitting on a raised throne.

Neither the army nor the police expressed any enthusiasm for investigating the disappearance.

The theme of reform of the monarch continued at the protest on Sunday morning when student leader Panusaya Sithijirawattanakul presented a list of demands outside the Privy Council Chambers to Police Lieutenant General Pakapong Pongpetra, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner.

The demands included the resignation of the government, a new constitution and an end to harassment of demonstrators. They also included a list of 10 points for reform of the monarchy Ms Panusaya had unveiled at a protest last month.

They included an end to the ban on criticising the monarchy; reduction of the palace budget to make it fit in with Thailand’s economic conditions; the return of the palace security guard, now under the king’s direct command, to the army; and a requirement that the king not endorse any future coups.

An envelope containing the demands was meant to be delivered to the Privy Council but it is not known what General Pakapong did with it.

The palace budget, one of the central issues in the student demands, was raised in Parliament last week. Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, former leader of the banned Future Forward Party, now a parliamentary budget adviser, described as alarming this year’s increase in the royal household budget of 17 per cent.

The national budget increase is only 3.1 per cent, while the impact of the Covid pandemic means economy is shrinking.

The palace budget for 2021 will be Baht 8.9 billion (just shy of $A400 million). Mr Thanathorn said the Budget Bureau spent two minutes in Parliament on the royal household allocation and gave no details.

Mr Thanathorn, however, obtained from Prime Minister Prayut’s office an inventory of a fleet of 38 aircraft available to the king and his royal consort Major-General Sineenat Wongvajirapakdi. Both are pilots.

They have at their disposal four Boeing and three Airbus commercial planes, four NorthropF5-E light fighter jets, three Russian Sukhoi Superjet 100s and 21 helicopters, three of which are scheduled to go into service next month.

Maintenance, fuel, ground support and other costs will total Baht 2 billion (about $A86 million) in 2021.

Thailand’s lese majeste laws allow for imprisonment of up to 15 years for criticising or insulting the royal family, and they make many people nervous. Thailand’s English-language media has reported Mr Thanathorn’s remarks on the general budgetary position but has not gone into details. The information on the royal aircraft fleet, for instance, was not published locally but appeared in London’s Financial Times.

This underlines just how remarkable are the students’ calls for reform of the monarchy. Their demands were previously merely thinkable – not utterable.

And their bravery presents the Government puts the Government in a quandary.

The calculation must be: if they take no action, do they embolden the students and give their movement time and an apparently safe space to gather momentum; if they crack down hard on an essentially middle-class movement, how much damage will they do to Thai society – and to Thailand’s international reputation.

The latter is particularly important, given the effect of Covid-19 on international tourism. The pre-Covid forecast of international tourism arrivals during 2020 was 40 million; the Bank of Thailand (the central bank) now estimates arrival will reach only eight million.

The Government so far has wisely taken the soft approach. Late last week Prayut tried to dampen enthusiasm for the weekend’s protest by talking about the risk of spreading Covid-19. But that was all: no further threats. When the demonstration turned out to be peaceful – more carnival than carnage – he thanked both the protesters and the police. Some 57 police companies of police (8,500 officers) were on duty during the demonstrations.

The big unknown is the attitude of the king.

The protesters are planning another demonstration on Thursday – this time, outside Parliament as it debates the palace budget.

And they have called for a general strike on October 14. It is an ambitious suggestion but, again, the symbolism is important: it is the anniversary of one of the tragic turning points in modern Thai history.

In October, 1973 some 500,000 students demonstrated at Bangkok’s elite Thammasat University. They encountered police and soldiers using tanks, war weapons and helicopters.

Almost 80 students were killed. But the events led to the resignation of the dictatorial government of Field Marshal Thanom Kittikachorn.

A pivotal point in Thai political history but not, we can all hope, an event to be repeated.

Cameron Douglas is an Australian businessman with interests in Bangkok. In non-Covid times, he visits the Thai capital frequently.

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Cameron Douglas is an Australian business executive who visits Bangkok frequently.

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