Young Thais are braving arrest and shattering social norms to take on an increasingly unpopular king and his loyal prime minister. Even if they lose, Thailand might never be the same again.
The last taboo
Young Thais are braving arrest and shattering social norms to take on an increasingly unpopular king and his loyal prime minister. Even if they lose, Thailand might never be the same again.
Filed: December 18, 2020, 11 a.m. GMT
Songphon “Yajai” Sonthirak had been a boxer for most of his young life and knew how to face down a stronger opponent: Keep your guard up, stand tall, stay focused. So he was shocked to discover, on the day of his arrest, how little his training mattered and how fear seized him.
Yajai, meaning “balm for the heart,” is a 21-year-old law student with a mop of dyed blue-green hair. He’d volunteered to help with security at a small anti-government protest in the heart of old Bangkok.
It was Oct. 13, a Tuesday, the start of 11 days that would change Yajai’s life and shake Thailand.
For three months, thousands of young Thais had been pouring onto streets in protests of growing size and boldness, largely unimpeded by police. They were demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, a retired army chief who seized power in a 2014 coup. Far more remarkably, they were publicly criticising King Maha Vajiralongkorn, who is protected from insult by a strict lese majeste law. The young demonstrators were thus risking criminal prosecution and tearing up the rules of a society centred on devotion to its monarch, who is still revered by many as semi-divine.
“I’d never been more frightened in my life.”
Yajai and his friends were gathered around a pick-up truck that doubled as a sound stage. Reuters reporters witnessed the scene. It was the end of the rainy season, overcast and drizzling. Dancing on the truck was Yajai’s friend Jatupat “Pai” Boonpattararaksa. Pai had previously served two years in prison for sharing a critical article about King Vajiralongkorn on Facebook, so falling foul of Thailand’s lese majeste law. Today, Pai was gyrating his hips and singing a satirical song about the king.
“Don’t love him, don’t love him, don’t love him, don’t love him
Then be careful you’ll go to jail, to jail, to jail...”
Other protesters sang along or held up three-fingered salutes, a gesture of defiance borrowed from the Hunger Games movies.
Yajai watched the police. Since late morning, there’d been a few cops. Then, around 3 p.m., hundreds of officers swarmed the intersection where the protesters were gathered. King Vajiralongkorn, on a rare visit to Thailand from Germany, where he has spent much of each year, would soon pass in his motorcade on the way to a nearby temple.
Normally when a royal motorcade approaches, Thais sit on the ground or even prostrate themselves, in silence. Now, for the first time, openly disrespectful protesters would be within shouting distance of the king. And for the first time since these protests began, police were moving in to break up the demo.
“Form a line! Form a line!” Yajai shouted, linking arms with others to hold back the police.
The police lines moved closer, slowly throttling the protest. Yajai later recounted how, in the confusion, he saw a policeman grab one of his friends and he ran to help. After the briefest of scuffles, he was pinned down and carried off by four or five officers, then bundled into a police van.
“I’d always thought my boxing experience meant I could protect myself, but it turns out I couldn’t do a thing,” Yajai said. “I’d never been more frightened in my life.”
In the van, Yajai said he was guarded by six policemen. “Who do you all think you are?” he recalled one of them sneering. “Did you think you could win?’”
Modern Thai history is littered with failed street protests, many of them crushed by the military. Most recently, in 2010, more than 90 people died in clashes when the army ended pro-democracy protests by the populist “Red Shirts.”
This time is different, say the young protesters, who continue to pour into the streets. They portray their movement as more inclusive, incorporating diverse political and social grievances. Three demands unite them: They want Prayuth’s resignation; a new, more democratic constitution; and curbs on the monarch’s powers, though not his overthrow.
They have learned from the tactics of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement and built alliances with anti-China activists in Taiwan. This new generation threatens to upend Thailand’s conservative, predominantly Buddist establishment. And they are complicating U.S. hopes of drawing Thailand, America’s oldest ally in the region, away from China’s growing sphere of influence. Some Thai officials suspect Washington is aiding the protests, despite U.S. denials.
Government spokesman Anucha Burapachaisri told Reuters the authorities need to do a better job of explaining to young people “why the monarchy is important and why it has been with Thailand for centuries.” Prayuth’s government, he went on, was democratically elected and any challenge should come from parliament, not the street.
The palace didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Yajai and Pai were among 21 protesters arrested that day. Deputy police spokesman Colonel Kissana Phathanacharoen said the force was following standard operating procedure faced with an illegal gathering that was blocking the road.
In the days that followed, there would be bigger demos, more arrests, and harsher responses as the government tried to contain the unrest.
The damage to the monarchy’s lustre was already done. After Yajai, Pai and several others were arrested, dozens of protesters remained on the street, their hands raised in three-fingered salutes. When the king’s limousine went past they shouted a new battle cry.
“Free our friends! Free our friends!”
“We don’t want to topple the monarchy, but we want to talk about these problems.”
WHILE YAJAI SPENT his first night in a police cell, Patsaravalee “Mind” Tanakitvibulpon was worrying about portable toilets. And also about her parents. Again.
Mind, a 25-year-old engineering student from Bangkok, was helping to organise a bigger protest for the next day, Oct. 14. Thousands would march to Government House, home to the prime minister’s office, and occupy the surrounding streets for five days. They would need trucks, tents, all sorts of supplies – including portable toilets, which Mind was struggling to rent.
She was also trying to convince her parents that everything was going to be okay. “I give my mother such a headache,” she told Reuters.
Mind has a tiny frame, a disarming smile and a habit of greeting people with a cheerful, double-handed wave. She had worked mostly behind the scenes as a protest organiser. The youth movement is often described as “leaderless” when it is actually hydra-headed, with new leaders emerging with every arrest. It would soon be Mind’s turn.
There were already hints at the firebrand she would become. At a big protest outside parliament in September, she had climbed onto a truck.
“We will not stop until we have a constitution that comes from the people,” she thundered. “We will not stop until the dark forces disappear!” When she got down from the truck, she was still so nervous her legs were shaking.
Many student protesters use the Thai phrase taa sawang – literally, “eyes brightened” – to describe their political awakening. Mind’s eyes brightened in 2015, on the first anniversary of Prayuth’s coup. A dozen or more young people protested against military rule in central Bangkok. In a video, Mind saw police officers and men in civilian clothes drag away protesters.
“I was shocked and thought, ‘Why can’t we talk about the coup? What kind of democracy is this?’” said Mind. “That was it. That was the beginning.”
Like most Thais, Mind was taught from an early age that the king is the centre of Thai identity. Gold-framed portraits of the monarch hang in all classrooms and look down on city streets. Cinema audiences stand for the royal anthem.
Mind began to question the things she’d learned. She went online to study the history she hadn’t known at school. She listened to lectures by outspoken Thai scholars and watched radical documentaries. She thought about the duelling protests that dominated her childhood, pitting Thais clothed in the colours of their movements: the populist Red Shirts against the royalist Yellow Shirts. And she reflected how any challenge to the military establishment was branded anti-monarchy.
She began to see a straight line through her country’s turbulent past. It drew through dozens of coups and attempted coups and popular uprisings and military massacres, right back to the 1932 Siamese Revolution that ended the centuries-long reign of Thailand’s absolute monarchs.
But despite the shift to a constitutional monarchy that revolution was unfinished, and today the military and monarchy exist in an unhealthy alliance, Mind thought. She believed that the only way to avoid future violence was to talk more about the monarchy, not less.
“We don’t want to topple the monarchy, but we want to talk about these problems,” she said. “For too long, no one has dared.”
“I can create change”
THE NEXT MORNING, Oct. 14 – the day of the big protest – Yajai appeared at a hearing in a Bangkok court. According to Yajai and his lawyers, he faced 10 charges, including illegal assembly, damaging property and blocking traffic. The offenses were fairly minor and Yajai had no criminal record. He was confident the court would grant him bail and he would still make it to the protest.
Yajai not only studied law; he believed in it.
Growing up in northeast Thailand, where his parents ran a market stall in a small town in Roi-et province, he thought little of politics; he barely remembered the 2014 coup. His activism began at university, where he joined an environmental group. In 2019, he met his friend, Pai, newly released from prison, in the university’s law department.
There was a general election in March 2019, the first since the coup, and Yajai hoped for a return to democracy. Like many young Thais, Yajai supported Future Forward, a new progressive party. It came third, and General Prayuth remained prime minister. The opposition complained the election was designed to favour military-backed parties. Prayuth said the vote was fair.
Less than a year later, in February 2020, Future Forward was dissolved by a Thai court on the grounds the party received an illegal loan from its founder, Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit. Future Forward’s supporters were outraged. The student protests began.
Today’s protest in Bangkok would be the biggest Yajai had attended – if only the court would grant him bail.
But Yajai was denied bail. “I was in deep shock. I couldn’t even form a thought,” he recalled. He was driven to Bangkok Remand Prison and locked in a squalid cell packed with two dozen people. He was relieved to see that Pai was among them.
A spokesperson for the Court of Justice said of the case: “The court is impartial and independent and all the decisions it makes are based on the law.”
“They can try to shut our mouths...but we will refuse!”
MIND ARRIVED FOR the big protest after noon with an oversized white bow in her hair and wearing one of her favourite T-shirts. It read, “Love Cat, Hate Coup.”
The protest was layered with symbolism. Democracy Monument, where the protesters gathered, commemorates the 1932 end of absolute monarchy. Oct. 14 was the anniversary of a 1973 student-led uprising that propelled the military dictators of the day into exile and ushered in a brief period of democracy.
The march was aimed at occupying the streets surrounding Government House, around a mile away. Mind was riding on one of three main sound trucks. She looked at the crowd and felt her adrenalin pumping. There were tens of thousands of people.
Attached to Mind’s truck was a German flag, a reference to the king’s frequent extended visits in Bavaria. A protester on another truck was wearing a crop top with a bare midriff, a more daring reference to the king. Photos of King Vajiralongkorn dressed this way had appeared in several European tabloids and had circulated online in Thailand.
The march set off. The trucks played songs or led the crowd in chants of “1, 2, 3, 4, 5. Asshole Tu!” Prime Minister Prayuth’s nickname is Uncle Tu.
The march soon ground to a halt. The road to Government House was blocked by buses and riot police. Hours went by at a standstill. Then, at dusk, the protesters swept through the barricades and occupied the surrounding streets.
It was now Mind’s job to help organise for the planned occupation. Groups of people set up stages, sound systems and tents. The portable toilets were en route. Food vendors wheeled in carts and sold grilled chicken and pancakes. Within an hour, a tent city had sprung up with a festive atmosphere.
Mind was confident. “If we can maintain a large enough crowd, I don’t think the police will take drastic action,” she recalled thinking.
She was wrong. At 4 a.m. Prayuth declared a state of emergency, citing “turmoil” and “acts affecting the Royal Motorcade” after a few dozen protesters jeered Queen Suthida’s car on Oct. 14. All political gatherings of more than five people were now illegal, and the police had wide powers of arrest and detention.
Just before dawn, riot police surged back into the area, ripping down protesters’ barricades and tents. Thousands fled. Police arrested dozens of people, including 18 protest leaders, but not Mind. She slipped away into the night, only to reappear hours later to address a protest in central Bangkok, near the national police headquarters.
With so many leaders now behind bars, Mind was stepping up. “Hello, all democracy-loving brothers and sisters!” she told the crowd. “More than 30 of our friends have been arrested. Is this appropriate? Is this right? Our friends are fighters. They fought bravely to challenge the dictatorial power of the government.”
Her legs weren’t shaking this time. “They can try to shut our mouths,” she cried, “but we will refuse!”
“My aunt said if I was to hold up three fingers, I might lose them”
AS THE OCT. 14 drama unfolded, 18-year-old student Raroengchon “Kaen” Rattanavijai was watching the protests on television at her grandmother’s house in Bangkok’s eastern suburbs.
She had always been close to her grandmother, and had chosen to spend the day with her rather than alone in the dormitory. The protests were about to tear her family apart.
Three televisions in her grandmother’s house were tuned to Nation TV, whose commentators have described the protesters as “nation haters.” Kaen’s grandmother and aunt watched in outrage.
“They’re a disgrace to our country,” Kaen recalled her grandmother saying. “I wouldn’t be against the idea of shooting them dead.’”
Kaen fumed but said nothing. She had already attended some protests but knew it was pointless to argue with her grandmother. She also knew that, a few years ago, she too might have condemned the protests.
Kaen, a budding artist, speaks in near-flawless English picked up during a year in Alaska on a high school exchange program. Reverence of the monarchy runs deep in her family. She had marched with her mother in pro-royalist demonstrations in her earlier teens. Her grandmother had been fostered by an aristocratic family and grew up inside the grounds of a royal palace in Bangkok. Kaen and her mother went to an elite girls’ school.
“We had to write essays about why we love the king,” said Kaen. “I was taught you cannot question this one person.”
The turning point for Kaen came in 2016 with the death of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the current king’s father. King Bhumibol had ruled for so long – 70 years – that most Thais had no memory of a time before. For many Thais, he is the archetypal monarch: kind, wise, frugal, dutiful, despite the crown’s vast wealth.
King Vajiralongkorn’s style was different. He took control of the Crown Property Bureau, which manages the monarchy’s holdings, from the country’s finance ministry. The government transferred two bodyguard units in Bangkok to the king’s personal command. King Vajiralongkorn ordered the creation of a new volunteer corps, millions strong, whose members salute his portrait.
In May 2019, shortly before his coronation, the thrice-divorced king married one of his longtime bodyguards and named her Queen Suthida. Three months later, he elevated another bodyguard to be his “Royal Noble Consort,” a title that hadn’t been used since 1921. Soon after, the consort was stripped of the title for what the palace called her “very evil behavior,” only to be later restored and publicly declared “untainted.”
By then, the student protests were gaining momentum, and criticism of King Vajiralongkorn was blossoming online. Kaen read some of this and taa sawang – her political awakening began. Or, as she put it in American English: “I was like, ‘All my life, was it all a freaking lie?’”
Kaen started attending protests. Her family knew this, which made their comments in front of the television so hurtful. “My aunt said if I was to hold up three fingers, I might lose them,” she recalled.
Kaen silently resolved to defy the emergency decree and join the next protest.
“I thought the justice system would help protect us”
THE MORNING AFTER his arrival at Bangkok Remand Prison, Yajai’s green-blue hair was shaved off by a guard.
Anti-coronavirus measures meant prisoners weren’t allowed to leave their cells. Yajai’s overcrowded cell had no beds. Prisoners slept on mats on the hard floor. The lights were left on 24/7. In one corner, open to the room, was a toilet and water barrel. Yajai shut his eyes while washing in case he saw anyone watching him.
A spokesman for the Department of Corrections told Reuters that prisons were quarantining new arrivals for 14 days because of the coronavirus, and this was leading to more overcrowding. It is government policy to treat all prisoners in accordance with international standards, he said.
The cell had a television but it mainly aired prison information broadcasts or the Royal Bulletin – a reverential daily round-up of royal activities shown on most Thai channels. There was nothing on the protests.
Yajai battled despair. “I thought the justice system would help protect us,” he said.
Seventeen of the 20 protesters arrested along with Yajai now shared his cell. Reuters interviewed several of them, including Pai, who was the oldest at 29. He’d been in jail before. He helped his friends prepare their beds, cracked jokes and urged them to eat and exercise.
Yajai encountered another political activist – a well-known Red Shirt called Nattawut Saikua, imprisoned for his role in the 2007-2010 pro-democracy protests. Yajai and several others recounted how Nattawut lifted their spirits, telling them they were fighters, not criminals.
“Just changing this mindset made things better,” Yajai recalled.
Nattawut had access to information about what was happening on the streets. He told them tens of thousands of people were still protesting. Soon, said Yajai, a new thought punctured his gloom about being jailed: It was worth it.
“The police are coming!”
JUST AFTER 5 P.M. on Oct. 16, Kaen arrived at that day’s protest site – Ratchaprasong, a busy intersection in central Bangkok – to find that police had sealed it off. It was the third straight day of mass protests and police were growing more forceful.
Kaen pulled out her phone and checked Telegram, the latest messaging app used to organise the protests and confound police. The protesters had seen in Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement the value of last-minute changes of plan and tactics.
Sure enough, there was a message announcing a different venue: another busy intersection nearby, flanked by giant shopping malls and crisscrossed with elevated train tracks and pedestrian walkways.
Thousands of protesters had occupied the intersection, bringing rush-hour traffic to a halt. Among them were high school students in their uniforms. A loudspeaker on a truck pumped out chants of “Prayuth, get out!” Food vendors moved in to sell to protesters. Reuters reporters were at the scene.
Kaen was sitting in front of a makeshift stage when she heard someone say, “The police are coming!” She stood and saw a line of riot police edging towards the protest, a big truck behind them. Only when Kaen saw drenched protesters run past did she realize the truck had a water cannon.
A cry went up: “We need umbrellas!” Kaen watched as people on the walkways threw down umbrellas. Hands reached out to pass them to people on the front line facing the water cannon. This human conveyor belt was a scene straight from the Hong Kong protests.
As the water cannon broke through, the crowd turned and fled. Kaen ran with them, fending off calls from her mother, who was watching live TV coverage of the protests. “Mom, I don’t have time for you right now!’ Kaen thought. A few hours later, her mom would pick her up, along with another student who’d been kicked out of her royalist home.
The Royal Bulletin that evening showed the king on a visit to a university. He told a group of subjects sitting at his feet, “Right now, the country needs people who love the nation and the royal institution. We must teach the new generation to understand this.”
But it wasn’t just the new generation that was asking questions. The use of water cannons on non-violent protesters, many of them school kids, shocked many people. One was Kaen’s mother, Patcharee. When the family’s messaging group erupted in an argument, Patcharee took her daughter’s side and called for the monarchy’s reform.
Kaen’s grandmother left the chat in disgust. So did Kaen’s aunt, who later shared a Facebook post, seen by Reuters, that read: “I cut ties with anyone who supports the protests insulting the monarchy, whatever our relationship.”
Kaen stopped going to her grandmother’s house. When her grandfather had a birthday party, Kaen and her parents said they weren’t invited.
“No matter how many leaders they arrest, we will still be out here fighting.”
YAJAI WAS RELEASED from prison the following Monday, Oct. 19, after seven days behind bars. Mind was arrested on Wednesday night and charged with breaching the emergency decree, but was released the next morning. The next day, she led a rally outside Bangkok Remand Prison to call for the release of Pai and the remaining jailed protesters.
Pai walked free on Friday and immediately resumed his activism. “Send our voices to those locked up inside,” he told a cheering crowd at the prison gates. “No matter how many leaders they arrest, we will still be out here fighting.”
The fight, all three agreed, had barely begun. The protests continue. And no one can predict what will happen next.
The king has extended his stay in Thailand indefinitely. He attended gatherings with loyalists in yellow shirts – the monarchy’s colour – and posed for selfies or signed autographs. Millions of mostly older Thais still passionately believe that devotion to the king is the core of Thai culture and identity.
The government has barely budged either. Prayuth promised to consider changes to the constitution, the process for selecting the prime minister, for example, but not to the sections that deal with the monarchy’s powers. He also said in late November that all laws would be used against the protesters, including Article 112 – the lese majeste law – which remained on the statute book but hadn’t been applied for the past two years. At least 30 protesters have since been questioned by police on suspicion of breaching the lese majeste law. Charges have not so far been laid.
There have also been signs of violence as protests ground through November and into December. On Nov. 17, protesters marching on parliament clashed with police firing water cannons and tear gas. That evening, six protesters sustained gunshot wounds after they fought with royalist counter-protesters.
But Pai, Yajai, Mind and Kaen continue to hope. Speaking in early December, they said their movement continued to grow. They believe the change they helped set in motion is seismic. And now that the taboo about criticising the king is gone, they say, everything about the future is up for discussion.
“I can create change,” Mind said. “It’s a powerful feeling.”
Additional reporting from Panarat Thepgumpanat
By Panu Wongcha-Um and Kay Johnson
Photo editing: Jorge Silva
Video: Jiraporn Kuhakan, Juarawee Kittisilpa, Lauren Anthony
Design: Catherine Tai
Edited by Andrew RC Marshall and Janet McBride