It’s long been the case in Thailand that every conversation about the monarchy requires an extra level of alertness.
One must carefully note their surroundings, who could be trusted and who might potentially take offense. Words are chosen delicately, often using coded language, to establish a sense of trust before offering even mild criticism of an institution protected by laws that carry lengthy jail sentences.
The ever-present fear is rooted in history: Perceived opposition to the monarchy has been used for years to justify coups, send political opponents to prison or exile, or even kill them — as happened during a massacre of student protesters at Bangkok’s Thammasat University in 1976.
That’s what makes the protests challenging the monarchy the past few weeks so historic, and so precarious. Mostly student protesters are breaking deeply entrenched taboos in publicly calling for reduced powers for King Maha Vajiralongkorn, with tensions only set to rise ahead of a planned rally on Sunday where they expect a crowd topping 10,000 people.
“If the demonstrations do not cease, then this could be an incredibly dangerous moment for Thailand,” said Paul Chambers of Naresuan University’s Center of Asean Community Studies, who writes frequently about Thailand’s military. “The government may very well brutally repress them or disappear demonstration leaders.”
While Thailand abolished absolute monarchy in 1932, the royal establishment saw a resurgence of power during the 70-year reign of King Bhumibol Adulyadej that ended with his death in 2016. Since taking over, Vajiralongkorn has displayed his authority as head of state more overtly.
The king rebuked exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, took command of some army units and approved legal changes that gave him ownership of Crown Property Bureau assets. Those include stakes in Siam Commercial Bank PCL and Siam Cement PCL worth about $6.7 billion combined, according to the firms’ websites and Bloomberg calculations.
The 10 demands from the students call for reining in those powers, with the goal of effectively creating a more transparent and accountable monarchy similar to the one in Britain. They include revoking strict lese-majeste laws, allowing criticism of the king, separating the monarch’s properties from the Crown Property Bureau, banning the sovereign from expressing political opinions and prohibiting the monarchy from endorsing any coups.
Thai media outlets have remained largely silent on the demands, with only a few Thai-language outlets — such as BBC Thai and Prachatai — reporting details. A front-page headline in the English-language Bangkok Post declared “Students ‘crossed the line.’”
Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, a former army chief who received a royal endorsement for his 2014 coup, hasn’t directly addressed the demands. On Thursday, he questioned who was backing the movement and whether it was legal.
“The majority of people don’t agree with this,” Prayuth said. “We have to look into the demonstrations, and who’s behind it because there’s a lot of money involved. We have to investigate. There’s already a system in place to look into this. I don’t need to order anyone.”
The prime minister’s party, Palang Pracharath, took a stronger line.
“I can’t accept that some protest leaders have come out and violated the monarchy, which is unlawful, and some people have already filed complaints to the authorities,” Thanakorn Wangboonkongchana, a former spokesman for the party, said in a statement on Thursday. “Thai people won’t let anybody destroy an institution that’s loved and respected.”
Protesters are feeling the heat.
United Front of Thammasat and Demonstration, which organized a rally on Monday that drew thousands of people, canceled another one planned for Wednesday due to fears that agitators would cause trouble at the event. It coincided with a visit to Thailand from Vajiralongkorn, who spends the majority of his time in Germany, to celebrate his mother’s birthday and attend an oath-taking ceremony for new Cabinet ministers. He left Thailand shortly afterward.
The leaders of another group, the Student Union of Thailand, said late Wednesday night they feared arrest after noticing plainclothes officers around their homes. One of them, Panusaya Sithijirawattanakul, had read out a statement on Monday that called for curbing the monarchy’s power.
Sunday’s rally is being organized by Free People, an umbrella group that includes several student organizations as well as LGBT youths. Labor groups have said that they’ll also join the gathering set to start at 3 p.m. at Democracy Monument, which commemorates the 1932 revolution that ended absolute monarchy.
While the country’s elected politicians have mostly either stayed silent or condemned the protesters, more than 100 university professors across Thailand signed an open letter to support them. They said the proposal amounts to free speech and doesn’t insult the king according to the law.
“These are honest proposals in the preservation of the constitutional monarchy,” the statement released on Wednesday said.
Pavin Chachavalpongpun, an associate professor at Kyoto University’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies, said “anything could happen at this point” if the protests escalate, from a dissolution of parliament to the appointment of a new prime minister to a crackdown.
“These students at this time are very brave,” said Pavin, who is also an activist living in exile and whose passport was revoked during the 2014 coup. “As someone who has long campaigned for an open discussion of the monarchy, I have never seen anything like this before, so I think this could be a real turning point.”