Monarchy faces unprecedented challenge in 2020
2020 saw the greatest challenge to the Thai monarchy since the 1932 Siamese Revolution, which brought an end to its absolute rule.
This year, anti-establishment protesters launched an unprecedented call for reform of the revered institution, issuing a 10-point manifesto that would restrict Royal powers substantially.
Protesters called for the following 10 reforms: revoking His Majesty’s immunity from lawsuits; repealing the lèse majesté law; separating the King’s personal assets from the crown’s wealth; reducing public funds allocated to the monarchy; terminating Royal agencies including the Privy Council; subjecting Royal assets to audit; prohibiting the King from making political comments publicly; stopping state-funded publicity of the monarchy; investigating the deaths of anti-establishment critics; and forbidding the King from endorsing future coups.
The push for monarchy reform earned support from many academics, politicians and lese majeste suspects – both in Thailand and overseas.
However, many others voiced loud opposition to the demands, with royalists finding the manifesto unacceptable and even insulting to the monarchy.
On September 20, the anti-establishment movement submitted an open letter addressed to Privy Council President General Surayud Chulanont asking for the monarchy to be reformed.
Then on October 26, thousands of protesters gathered outside the German embassy in Bangkok asking for an investigation of His Majesty’s frequent visits to Germany. The King is known to have spent a considerable amount of time living in Bavaria each year.
A German government source was later quoted by Reuters as saying that Germany does not believe the Thai monarch is violating the ban on conducting state business while on its soil.
On November 8, protesters held another event calling for people to “write letters to the King”, which were then posted in four replica Thailand Post mailboxes outside the Grand Palace.
The letters were confiscated by police, who said they were investigating the incident and might charge those involved.
In late November, protesters raised the ante by targeting the King’s finances and also links with the Army. On November 25, they gathered outside the headquarters of Siam Commercial Bank, in which the King is a major shareholder. They initially planned to rally outside the Crown Property Bureau but were kept away by a barrier of shipping containers erected by police.
On November 29, the movement again switched its protest site at the last minute, after Bangkok police built a wall of containers to protect the 1st Infantry Regiment of the King’s Guards, located on Vibhavadi Rangsit Road. They turned up instead at the 11th Infantry Regiment of the King’s Guards in Bangkok’s Bang Khen district. Both regiments have been closely associated with the monarchy since their birth more than a century ago.
As the challenge from the anti-establishment movement grew, the Palace appeared to focus on narrowing the traditional gulf between the Thai monarchy and common people.
His Majesty mingled with crowds outside the Grand Palace, drawing admiration from not just royalists and loyal subjects but also mainstream and social media.
In moves never seen before from his predecessors, the King posed for a selfie, signed autographs and even touched commoners while thanking them.
Meanwhile, dozens of protest leaders were slapped with lèse majesté charges for remarks and claims they had made at rallies about the monarchy, especially King Rama X. They face jail sentences of between three and 15 years if found guilty.
Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha had said in June that enforcement of the draconian law had been suspended for two years at the King’s request.
Undeterred, protest leaders have vowed to escalate their push for monarchy reform in the new year.
“It’s going to boil over next year,” activist and lawyer Anon Nampa promised. “Everybody knows that Thailand needs to reform the monarchy.”