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King Maha Vajiralongkorn and Queen Suthida: Thailand's ancient monarchy has found itself badly out of step with the kingdom's modern youth.   © Reuters
Asia Insight

Thailand's untouchable monarchy comes under unusual scrutiny

King Maha Vajiralongkorn talks of compromise but calls for reform unlikely to go away

MASAYUKI YUDA, Nikkei staff writer | Thailand

BANGKOK -- Early on Sunday morning, Arnon Nampa, 36, a human rights lawyer whose calls for reform of the monarchy date back over a decade, posted a long letter of rebuke to the king on social media from Chiang Mai, where he faces prosecution.

It was Arnon who punctured the royal cocoon in July when he broke a long-standing taboo by advocating reform of the once inviolable monarchy at a student rally. The call was amplified the following month in a 10-point reform agenda read out at Thammasat University.

The seemingly nonnegotiable message that has emerged from the rash of youth-led protests in recent months is that there cannot be meaningful political reform in Thailand until the monarchy - which its critics say is unaccountable and self-serving -- is brought back under the constitution.

King Vajiralongkorn's constant absence is a major issue. Since his accession in 2016, the king has continued to reside in Bavaria in southwestern Germany. His father, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who died in 2016, did not leave Thailand at all after 1967, apart from a fleeting visit to Laos in 1994, and for many decades spent eight months of the year outside the capital moving between four provincial palaces. His son's visits home usually last less than 24 hours.

"He likes Germany because he can be free from ceremonies," Sulak Sivaraksa, 87, Thailand's leading social critic, told Nikkei Asia. Sulak had a 90-minute audience with the king in 2017, when they discussed the future of the monarchy.

The other two key demands of the protesters are that the military-drafted constitution be amended in consultation with representatives of the people, and that Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, the former army chief who seized power in 2014, resign along with his cabinet.

King Maha Vajiralongkorn receives a wilting red rose at a royalist rally -- red is the colour of the opposition, while yellow is a royal color.    © Reuters

On Saturday, key pro-democracy groups Free Youth and Free People posted a message to the king on social media: "If your words, 'We love them all the same,' are true, you should accept letters from everyone, not just those in yellow shirts who shout loudly 'Long live the king.' Treat everyone the same."

Protesters were earlier told to write personal letters to the king. At about 6:30 p.m. on Sunday, riot police halted over 10,000 of them with two water cannon blasts when they tried to deliver their messages. The protest was moving toward the Grand Palace and the Privy Council Chambers where a protest note to the king was delivered by student leaders on Sept. 19. Police later described using water cannons as a mistake.

A prepared statement was meanwhile issued online, and signed simply "People."

"This kingdom is a land of compromise and love, not of cruel power and brute force," it said. "The three demands from the people are the utmost compromise."

No officials were sent to receive the letters, and organizers described the protest as "symbolic" -- encouraging speculation that secret backchannel talks are already underway.

Organizers maintained that officials remain unresponsive. The letters were left behind in four red wheelie bin mailboxes that police said would not be forwarded to the king because protocols had been ignored.

Pro-democracy protesters flash trademark three-finger salutes as they pass a portrait of King Maha Vajiralongkorn on Oct. 14.   © Reuters

Sunday's protest started at nearby Democracy Monument, and followed a small royalist gathering there. "Let's gather at Democracy Monument on Nov. 8 to observe whether there's anyone who would insult the monarchy," one social media post read. The royalists sang the national anthem and dispersed, and a feared clash did not happen.

The letter campaign followed some rare public comments made by the king on Nov. 1, the night after a blue moon. The roads outside the Grand Palace were shimmering belts of gold as an estimated 8,000 royalists dressed in yellow waited for a chance to meet the king -- normally the most elusive man in his own kingdom.

The king had on an earlier occasion stepped away from his motorcade to mingle with ordinary royalists, and even posed for palace-approved selfies. The Thai press invariably maintain a respectful distance, but the king's relative accessibility has opened cracks. A smart foreign correspondent emerged from the crowd to perform a classic "doorstep" maneuver.

"Your majesty, these people love you, but what do you have to say to the protesters?" asked Jonathan Miller, a correspondent for Channel 4 News in the U.K. and U.S.-based CNN.

"I have no comment," the king initially responded looking somewhat bemused. But he rallied: "We love them all the same," he repeated three times.

"Is there any room for compromise, sir?" Miller asked.

"Thailand is the land of compromise," the king said, before moving away uncomfortably with Queen Suthida shouting back, "We also love you."

King Maha Vajiralongkorn supported by Queen Suthida as they mingle among royalists outside the Grand Royal Palace on Nov. 1.    © Getty Images

The king returned to Thailand on Oct 10. for what was to have been a week to mark the fourth anniversary of his father's death. That would have been among his longest stays since his accession, but with the youth-led protests continuing, and Germany going into lockdown, his stay has been extended to the end of December -- providing rare opportunities to engage with him.

On Oct. 14, a royal motorcade carrying Queen Suthida and the king's fifth son, Prince Dipangkorn Rasmijoti, 15, briefly encountered a protest march heading for Government House. The still unexplained close encounter was a justification for the elevated "serious" state of emergency declared on Oct. 15. -- Thailand has been ruled under a state of emergency since March to contain the COVID-19 pandemic. Police used water cannons, tear gas and skin irritants the following day against peaceful demonstrators who were about to disperse -- an action that attracted widespread criticism.

There has also been a foreign twist. On Oct. 26, the German embassy was the scene of arguably the most serious diplomatic incident in Bangkok since Palestinian terrorists seized the Israeli embassy in 1971. A smaller group of royalists delivered a letter, followed a few hours later by students who read out a detailed communication in Thai, English, and German.

Among other matters, they wanted Berlin to investigate whether the king conducts Thai affairs of state on German soil, and whether he is liable for inheritance tax in Bavaria. As the embassy circulated a letter defending the right to peaceful demonstrations, and stuck resolutely to a middle path between the two groups, many were reminded that the king's desire to reside in Germany could exert some unusual external restraint on how the young protesters are handled.

"Germany is currently holding the presidency of the EU Council, and is thus in a key position," Felix Heiduk of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs told Nikkei.

On Oct. 31, the king boldly went ahead with a two-day graduation ceremony at Thammasat University, the very epicenter of recent student rebellion. Almost half of the 9,600 recent graduates opted not to receive their degrees from him -- foregoing a cherished rite of passage during the last reign. Throughout, the young protesters have stuck to their demand for royal reform.

The political ruckus has many reasons according to Kasit Piromya, 75. The retired foreign minister and former leading Yellow Shirt believes there is a chasm after the 70-year reign of King Bhumibol, and that military government has not delivered on its promise to tackle political corruption. The economic crisis precipitated by the COVID-19 pandemic has aggravated everything.

The king has attracted public ire by his absence in Germany, transferring Crown Property Bureau assets to his own name, and placing himself in the military chain of command when he is already titular head of the armed forces. "The king cannot just fly in from Germany, do royal activities, and fly back," Kasit told Nikkei.

"These protesters are the generation that has been raised by their families to think outside the box," Kanokrat Lertchoosakul, an assistant professor at Chulalongkorn University specializing in student activism, told Nikkei. "They are not hesitant to argue or question."

Protesters flash three-finger salutes inspired by the Hunger Games films.     © Reuters

But discussions stir tensions. "I tried to raise the debate about the monarchy's role when we were having lunch with my parents and grandmother," a 16-year-old protester nicknamed Noey told Nikkei. "At first, my parents were willing to talk, but we had to stop because the conversation made my grandmother uncomfortable."

Sulak thinks the youth unrest is justified. "This is the first time with not only college and university students but also schoolchildren," he told Nikkei. "They are very articulate, and what they say also makes sense."

On Nov. 4, over 20 protest leaders called a press conference at Sanam Luang to reiterate their three main policy planks. Student slogans reflect exasperation with the military interference in politics -- ostensibly in defense of the monarchy: "Down with feudalism! Long live democracy! End it in our generation!" they chant. Prayuth's coup in 2014 was the second this century, and the 13th since Thailand's absolute monarchy was notionally replaced by a constitutional variant in 1932.

There is also deep suspicion of the compliant judiciary. In March 2019, the opposition Future Forward party won 16% of the vote with major support from first-time voters and young urbanites, making it the third largest party. It was dissolved by the constitutional Court for accepting a large loan from its former leader, Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, 41, who was also barred from politics for 10 years. But youthful rebelliousness is unlikely to dissipate. Schoolchildren who participated in recent pro-democracy protests will vote in 2023, adding to the youthful reformers who voted for Future Forward in 2019.

Official efforts to reassert authority over the once relatively submissive majority Buddhist population have so far failed. More people came out on the streets after police first used water cannons. Attempts to shutter news organizations and social media sites have foundered. A court order to shut down VoiceTV was rescinded, while an anti-monarchy Facebook group, Royalists Marketplace, defied a shutdown order by slightly renaming itself. It rebounded with over two million members.

On Wednesday, Prayuth signed a motion to go before parliament regarding constitutional reform, which requires a national referendum. Paiboon Nititawan, deputy leader of the Palang Pracharat party in the ruling coalition, supported the idea of a referendum. "I believe that majority of Thai people would disagree with rallies that violate the monarchy," he said.

Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha looks on during a two-day special parliamentary session in late October that failed to resolve Thailand's political deadlock.    © AP

"The youth calls for structural reforms are not possible because the elites cannot see the entrenched structural problems," Puangthong Pawkapan, a political scientist at Chulalongkorn University, told Nikkei. "Even if the elites do see them, they will not bring change to the system -- the stakes are too high."

Sulak has always argued that constructive criticism is the best way to protect and perpetuate the monarchy. "People already feel that the monarchy may not even survive," he said, "if the monarchy is not accountable, if there is no criticism and unless it benefits people."

"This is the bet of their life for the next 60 years," Kanokrat said of the protesters. "Changes have to take place. It is the time to hold serious discussion so that we can live together," she added.

Additional reporting by Marwaan Macan-Markar and Apornrath Phoonphongphiphat.

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