Thailand Mass Protests against the King

By Ana Laura Ferrari Oct. 27, 2020 Weekly Graphs

In the last weeks, Thailand witnessed massive student-led protests. Many citizens took to the streets to demand the resignation of Prime Minister Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha and more restrictions on the King’s power. In response, the government banished gatherings of more than four people and arrested activists. Nevertheless, pro-democratic rallies persist.

Thailand has a long history of pro-democratic mass mobilization. Even so, authoritarianism dominates the political scene. The graph below shows Thailand’s record of protests and military interventions from 2000 to 2019. The military dimension index, in blue, reflects the extent to which the appointment and dismissal of the chief executive are based on the threat or actual use of military force. The mass mobilization for democracy component, in red, measures the frequency and size of events of mass mobilization for pro-democratic aims in a given year. 

From 2005 to 2015, Thailand experienced sequential waves of pro-democratic mobilization, and two of them had important consequences. First, in 2005 and 2006, Thailand went through an intense political crisis. Many people protested against the then Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who they deemed corrupt and authoritarian. However, pro-government groups organized demonstrations at the same time. As a result of clashes between both groups, parts of the military launched a coup against Shinawatra. With royal approval, they imposed martial law, shut down parliament, and replaced the 1997 Constitution. Although Thais have voted in general elections in 2007, political conflicts were not settled during this time, and pro-democratic mass mobilization continued some year later.

The second important wave of mass mobilization happened in 2013-2014. In 2013, political turmoil erupted between pro-government and anti-government protestors once again. The prime minister elected in 2011, Yingluck Shinawatra, Thaksin’s sister, was ousted from power by Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, the head of Thailand’s army. In 2014, the second military coup in less than 10 years was launched, and Prayuth Chan-ocha consolidated his power as prime minister with the backing of Thailand’s monarchy. He is in office until today.

As you can see in the V-Dem Graphing Tools, the military dimension index's levels in Thailand are much higher compared to other countries in Southeast Asia. With the monarchy's approval, the country's political outcomes are frequently determined by force rather than elections.

The current wave of protests differs from previous ones for one main reason. Now, the monarchy is also an object of complaints. The King Maha Vajiralongkorn, who ascended to the throne in 2016, has always been unpopular. Protesters accuse him of trying to concentrate power. Besides, in 2017 he became one of the wealthiest people in Thailand by transferring wealth from the Monarchy of Thailand to his own name, which increased Thais' dissatisfaction.

By now, it is not possible to foresee the outcome of the current mass mobilization in Thailand. It is important to note that “insulting the monarch” is a crime subject to imprisonment in the country  – another thing protesters aim to change. The Monarchy and the government are allies in trying to maintain the status quo. However, Thais keep pushing for reforms.

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