Under the Reign of King Maha Vajiralongkorn: Political and Economic Instability Catalyzes Protests Across the Nation

Protestors demanding monarchical change raise their characteristic three-fingered salute.

Protest movements have spread across Thailand, with thousands of students gathering in Bangkok to demand systemic democratic reforms. Since the establishment of the nation’s constitutional monarchy in 1932, the royal family has wielded considerable power. Despite the long-standing 15 years of imprisonment of individuals voicing public criticism against the monarchy, youth protesters remain persistent in their fight to usher in change. 

Since the beginning of March this year, these political movements have arisen on academic campuses in response to the dissolution of the popular Future Forward Party, a movement that supports progressive politics. Although brought to a halt by the pandemic for several months, the protests erupted once again in July. Students and members of labor unions continue to take to the streets to demand democratic reforms. According to Dr. Kanokrat Letchoosakil, a political science professor at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, Thailand, “this is the first student mass movement since the 1970s.” Though they collectively form a movement, it is important to acknowledge the diversity of the protests. Besides differing in size and location, the protests have “diverse agendas” that represent the multifaceted “ideas of the younger generation” rather than mainstream politics, according to Letchoosakil. These agendas precisely call for new elections, amendments to the constitution, and an end to the suppression of critics. 

Following his ascension to the throne in 2016, King Maha Vajiralongkorn introduced a new charter to strengthen his constitutional powers and wealth. He has taken several steps to substantiate this power, including the amendment of the royal property law by the military in July 2017, granting himself full control over the Crown Property Bureau, an investment firm with an estimated net worth of 30 billion U.S dollars. Although the bureau holds a large number of shares in private enterprises as well as real estate properties, this unit does not have to publicize its holdings or profits. 

In addition, Vajiralongkorn seized personal control of two key army units, validating his power with military affairs. According to the World Politics Review, King Vajiralongkorn’s father had to coordinate with generals and other juntas to execute his powers, which became commonly referred to as a “network monarchy.” However, Vajiralongkorn has eliminated this process, thereby minimizing the power of both military and political parties and consolidating his capacity for unilateral decision-making. On a potential path toward absolute monarchy, the nation is inevitably engulfed in crisis and facing steep challenges in both political and economic spheres. 

Regardless, it is still difficult to challenge the King’s power and sustain the momentum generated by the protests, as daring resistance is usually seen only among the younger generations. As stated in an article on The Guardian, students “make three-fingered salutes, wear white ribbons, and hold pieces of blank pieces” as a form of the right to freedom of expression. On the other hand, those over 30 are less likely to manifest or profess their dissent of the state. 

In addition to these circumstances, the King also holds great control of the country’s armed forces. Any political unrest and protest will yield devastating consequences and scenes of bloodshed and violence. Prayuth Chan-ocha, Thailand’s Prime Minister, has discouraged protesters  by suggesting that if they continue, the country will be unable to progress forward. He appealed peacefully: “I hear you have political grievances and that you have issues with the constitution, I respect your opinions…”. The Prime Minister encouraged citizens to avoid straying from mitigating the problems that he considers more pressing: “our country has some very much more immediately painful issues that it must address — that is the economic destruction brought about by COVID-19…”. 

Besides political change, labor rights, gender equality, and educational reform are also matters of concern. The nation is in dire need of reevaluating their current political and social structures. They need to support new systems and implement measures for the provision of necessary resources and services to prepare knowledge workers for the coming times. A reformed economy will propel the nation toward economic prosperity and away from the labor-intensive industries that have rendered it poverty-stricken. 

As these ongoing protests continue and young activists remain resolute on their mission, the results will play a significant role in shaping the country’s future in the years to come. 

Photo from Shutterstock.

By Helen Phi