Thai Student Protests: Conjuring Up the Ghosts of 1932

That calls for replacement of Thailand’s military-imposed constitution have touched on the political role of the monarchy is no surprise. Growing signs of support for constitutional change in provincial Thailand may be a more telling development.

Anti-government protesters hold up signs during a rally at Democracy Monument in Bangkok on August 16, 2020. Protesters gathered for a rally in Bangkok on August 16 against the government as tensions rose in the kingdom after the arrest of three activists leading the pro-democracy movement. (Photo: Lillian Suwanrumpha, AFP)

Michael J. Montesano

18 August 2020

Sunday’s pro-democracy rally at Bangkok’s Democracy Monument, organised by the Free People movement, passed off without violence. By some estimates, the rally drew 20,000 people. This was double the number expected, and makes the rally the biggest political gathering since the 2014 military coup. Speakers repeated the movement’s recent calls for the dissolution of parliament, a new constitution to replace the military-imposed charter of 2017, and a halt to official intimidation of critics of the government of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha. Press reports note that, terming them a “dream” rather than a demand, speakers also made reference to calls for reform of the political role of the Thai monarchy.

In their boldest form, issued during a demonstration at the Rangsit campus of Thammasat University last week, those calls advocate bringing the monarchy under the purview of the constitution and the law, subordinating organs serving the monarchy to the government, and restricting the monarchy to the apolitical role of constitutional monarchies elsewhere. These calls are bold. They have had a certain shock value. But it should come as no surprise that they figure in a campaign for constitutional change in Thailand.

Royalism and constitutionalism have had an uneasy relationship in the country. Following the end of the absolute monarchy in 1932, the People’s Party government mounted an elaborate campaign across the length and breadth of Thailand to promote the constitution as a pillar of national unity. While the campaign did not prove successful, the same government’s refusal to consent to King Prajadhipok’s demands for amendment of the constitution to enhance royal authority precipitated the king’s abdication.

The partnership of the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej and Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat during the latter’s 1957-1963 premiership returned the monarchy to a high-profile position in Thai life. It set in motion the restoration of royal prestige. The king and those around him built on these developments to make the monarchy the unifying force that the constitution had failed to become a quarter-century earlier. In principle, Thailand remained a constitutional monarchy, but the lines between constitutional government and royal authority remained blurry. Royal endorsement of coups d’état and impunity for those who shredded constitutions after staging coups made clear that the relationship between the palace and constitutional rule tilted in favour of the former. Constitutional rule thus never sank deep roots in Thailand, though the ideal of constitutionalism promoted by the People’s Party lived on.

Thoroughly exposed to norms in the wider world, the university and high school students … see that, in the absence of reconsideration of the political role of the monarchy, constitutional government in Thailand has no chance. This reconsideration need not violate the country’s strict laws on lèse majesté.

In these circumstances, how surprising is it that young Thais who consider their country’s current constitution unacceptable are also critical of the enduring extra-constitutional authority of the monarchy? Or that their vision for a new charter includes both making the monarchy subject to that document and relegating the monarchy’s endorsement of unconstitutional seizures of state power to the past? Thoroughly exposed to norms prevailing in the wider world, the university and high school students protesting today have a realistic understanding of what ails their country. They see that, in the absence of reconsideration of the political role of the monarchy, constitutional government in Thailand has no chance. This reconsideration need not violate the country’s strict laws on lèse majesté.

The students’ willingness to challenge the Prayut government and call for scrapping the 2017 constitution that paved that government’s way to power has provoked panic and vituperation in Thailand’s security establishment and among reactionary elements in society. While media attention has focused on demonstrations in and around Bangkok, indications of this panic have also been manifest in provincial Thailand, to which the late King Bhumibol devoted decades of work to foster national unity centred on the monarchy.

The human-rights NGO iLaw has revealed that in recent months authorities have threatened people involved in organising protests in Lamphun, Phrae and Chiang Mai in the North; Phetchabun, Loei, Khon Kaen, Amnat Charoen and Udon Thani in the Northeast; Kanchanburi, Nonthaburi and Samut Prakan in Central Thailand; and Krabi, Nakhon Si Thammarat, Phatthalung, Songkhla and Pattani in the South. Those threatened have included young people never before involved in political activities. Despite this intimidation, however, recent weeks have seen demonstrations to demand a new constitution in more than 40 of Thailand’s 76 provinces. Students at provincial universities organised a number of these events.

The involvement of provincial youth in the ongoing wave of protests in support of constitutional democracy in Thailand matters. It offers evidence that impatience, idealism and the belief that Thailand deserves a very different political order are not confined to young people in Bangkok alone. It bespeaks a faith in constitutionalism across the length and breadth of the country, recalling the efforts of the People’s Party in the 1930s to enshrine the constitution as a pillar of national unity.

So far, demonstrations calling for the dissolution of parliament and the drafting of a new constitution have not triggered the brutal crackdown that witnesses to previous crackdowns fear. Whether the weeks ahead will lead to a bloody collision between a newly engaged generation of young Thais and forces determined to defend the prevailing order is impossible to foretell. Whatever happens next, we must understand the background to that generation’s determination to bring unhindered constitutional rule to the country. As today’s young inherit the Thailand of tomorrow, a return to constitutionalism may yet prove a source of national unity.

Dr Michael Montesano is the coordinator of the Thailand Studies Programme at the ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute.

ISEAS Commentary — 2020/123

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