The Anti-Royalist Possibility: Thailand’s 2020 Student Movement

The current protest movement in Thailand is breaking new political ground while acknowledging their predecessors.

A protester holds up a sign asking, “How’s the weather in Germany?” (Photo: @DJ_Tito112, Twitter)
Khorapin Phuaphansawat

Khorapin Phuaphansawat

6 October 2020

Recent months have opened up a new possibility in Thai politics. In addition to calling for the dissolution of parliament and constitutional reform, the anti-government movement, composed primarily of urban secondary school and university students, has mounted an unprecedented attack on the Thai monarchy for its undemocratic and extra-constitutional political and immense economic power.

Anti-royalist expressions have taken four forms, rhetorically and symbolically. Some resemble those of the Red Shirts, the mass political movement mobilised to support electoral and majoritarian democracy from 2007 to 2014. Others differ.

First, during the nascent period of the new movement, criticism of the monarchy, and especially of King Vajiralongkorn, or Rama X, took the form of word games. In February 2020, political rallies were organised on university campuses nationwide. While protesters mainly attacked the government, some participants carried protest signs referring to “IO”, “Germany” or “Come Home”.

These terms represented hidden anti-royalist transcripts under restrictive conditions in which protesters remained uncertain about what was “sayable” and fearful of social disapproval and legal prosecution. They pointed to the fact that Rama X spends most of his time in Germany. The term “IO”, commonly known as an abbreviation for “Informational Operation”, the government’s propaganda technique, can also be read as a secret reference to the unnameable monarch by understanding “IO” as “10.”

Young protesters are paying tribute to the Red Shirts, and believe that they share their status as the underclass long neglected by the monarchy.

Second, protesters use metaphors mentioning the sky, dust or dirt to problematise the relationship between the monarch and his subjects. Thais have revered the former, like an unreachable “sky”, a supreme and divine figure metaphorically compared to worthless “dust” or “dirt”. In formal Thai language, a subject must compare themselves to the dust under the sole of the royal feet when he or she speaks to the monarch and members of the royal family. These terms are now being twisted and used subversively.

This practice began with the Red Shirts, when protest placards read “the sky is blind” and a protest song summoned “the dust warriors”. These metaphors have re-emerged in recent demonstrations. In mid-August 2020, a Chulalongkorn University student even recited “From Soil to Sky”, a famous speech by Red Shirt leader Nattawut Saikua at a December 2008 rally that emphasised the great contrast between the powerless, resentful, and dirt-like Red Shirts on earth and those powerful in the sky far away. Quoting Nattawut is politically significant. Young protesters are paying tribute to the Red Shirts, and believe that they share their status as the underclass long neglected by the monarchy.

The recent protesters have taken these metaphors even further. Young activists have declared, or worn shirts reading, “I am not dust”. Booklets entitled “August 10: The Phenomenon That Shook the Sky” have been distributed at rallies. The title refers to the day when protesters publicly demanded reform of the monarchy at a rally at Thammasat University’s Rangsit Campus.

Third, the anti-royalism of 2020 is distinct from the Red Shirts in its overt and straightforward expression. On 3 August 2020, veteran activist and human rights lawyer Anon Nampa broke Thailand’s anti-royalist taboo by openly criticising the monarchy from the protest stage. He condemned the changes regarding royal power and wealth during the current king’s reign: reorganisation of the Crown Property Bureau, establishment of the Royal Service Bureau, increases in government budgets for the monarchy, and royal interference in national politics and constitution drafting. Other protesters followed in Anon’s footsteps, and the movement eventually came up with its ten demands for the reform of the monarchy.

Fourth, the current movement pays respect to historical figures stigmatised in Thailand’s official history. Like the Red Shirts, it lionises the People’s Party, which overthrew absolute monarchy in 1932. While Red Shirts designed and sold wall clocks replicating the memorial plaque of the People’s Party, the new movement placed a plaque echoing that party’s slogan at Sanam Luang during its 19 September rally: “This country belongs to the people not to the King, as they have been deceitfully telling us.” Images of this new symbol have circulated through social media and in everyday interactions – on Facebook, a T-shirt and even a birthday cake. The protesters have also stirred memories of security forces’ bloody crackdown on Red Shirts in May 2010, the mysterious June 1946 death by gunshot of King Ananda Mahidol and the unfair trial and execution of those held responsible, and rightists’ massacre of students in October 1916.

The current wave of demonstrations in Thailand has been driven by new and creative anti-royalist rhetoric and symbols. Its forthright public criticisms of the monarchy have changed what is possible in Thai politics. The movement also honours and resurrects its democratic predecessors’ legacies. Carrying on the political mission of the Red Shirts and the People’s Party, it strives for the establishment of a constitutional monarchy. As Anon said to the Red Shirt audience, “Learning from the Red Shirts, the youth will lead us all to victory.”

Dr Khorapin Phuaphansawat is a lecturer in the Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University.

ISEAS Commentary — 2020/152

The facts and views expressed are solely that of the author/authors and do not necessarily reflect that of ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute. No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form without permission.