A Revolutionary Change in Thailand: Protests Against the Monarchy Signal a Break With the Past

Tamara Loos

Thailand has experienced political convulsions before. In the past 15 years, street protests have precipitated the rise and fall of two governments, in 2006 and 2014, respectively. But the latest unrest reveals a revolutionary cultural shift in the country. In the past, the principal battle was among political factions vying for power. Today, Thai citizens are openly challenging the monarchy. An institution that was once untouchable has fallen from its pedestal and become subject to public debate, scorn, and even repudiation. 

Today’s protests follow earlier political upheavals that shook the country for years. Two factions—known euphemistically as the Red Shirts and the Yellow Shirts for their chosen colors—have wrangled for political control in Thailand since 2006. Their feuding catalyzed a military coup in 2006, which toppled the Red Shirt–backed Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. The Red Shirts protested against the coup, which led to a brutal military crackdown in 2010. Authorities held elections again in 2011 that resulted in the nomination of Thaksin’s sister Yingluck Shinawatra as prime minister. In 2014, a conservative umbrella group that included the Yellow Shirts staged antigovernment protests. The military then forced another coup, installing Prayuth Chan-ocha, the army chief, as prime minister, ostensibly in order to ensure an orderly transition from the declining King Bhumibol Adulyadej to his son, Vajiralongkorn.

Thai social media is full of satire and bitter invective directed at the monarch. The derision shocks many Thai observers and would have been unthinkable under the previous king. But the floodgates have opened. Protesters at demonstrations and on social media have turned the king’s own statements into mocking slogans, repeating his words with derision. Undergraduates at Thammasat University refused to attend their graduation ceremony rather than receive their diplomas from a member of the royal family—some of the graduates photographed themselves with a cardboard cutout of a local bean hawker instead. 

Thailand’s young protesters have already accomplished what previous generations did not dare even to attempt: they have made the monarchy a subject for public discussion and critique. They have voiced this radical dissent so intensely and pervasively that it cannot be silenced without cost.

The article's full-text is available here.

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