The young lawmaker who shatters Thailand’s deepest taboo
In a move never before attempted by any Thai politician, opposition MP Rangsiman Rome has proposed a “new deal” between the people and the monarchy to ensure that Thailand becomes a “real democratic constitutional monarchy”.
He said the deal could be reached through a new Constitution, written by an elected charter drafting assembly.
A former student activist, Rangsiman shattered a decades-old taboo by speaking openly in Parliament about the monarchy’s role and power, adding that the revered institution is being exploited by certain groups for their selfish benefit.
“What’s happening does not benefit ordinary people. They know these things would not happen if the monarchy was truly constitutional,” he said during a debate in Parliament last week on motions to amend the Constitution. He himself backed a motion to form a new charter-drafting assembly.
Rangsiman, a party-list MP from the opposition Kao Klai (Move Forward) Party, echoed demands made by anti-government protesters in recent weeks for reform of the monarchy.
The activist-turned-politician called for the monarchy to be open to public scrutiny and supervised by an elected government body, like any other organisation under the Constitution.
“My proposal does not represent a choice of either staying loyal or siding with the people. What we want to see is a monarchy that stands alongside democracy, with the people owning the highest power,” he said.
During his speech, Rangsiman was interrupted several times by government MPs who said he was violating the House rule against discussing the monarchy in the chamber. He was also warned by chair of the meeting, Vice Parliament President Pornpetch Wichitcholchai, who said it was inappropriate to raise the matter for “non-academic purposes”.
Making waves in Parliament
Rangsiman, 28, has created waves in Parliament before, attacking people in power and accusing them of involvement in scandals. His actions have twice triggered an outpouring of support, with the hashtag “#SaveRangsimanRome” trending on Thai social media.
The first time came in March when the opposition MP faced a defamation lawsuit for accusing Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan of using the charity foundation he chairs, the Five Provinces Bordering Forest Preservation Foundation, to foster connections with the country’s top billionaires.
Rangsiman claimed that by making donations to the foundation, the wealthy get a ticket into what he called the “Prawit Empire”. He said the foundation used state resources and mechanisms to build influence and connections for Prawit and his cronies.
The foundation was established by the Army in 2006 to conserve vast forests that span the southeastern provinces of Chachoengsao, Sa Kaew, Chonburi, Rayong and Chanthaburi, according to its website.
Rangsiman’s allegations prompted the foundation to file a defamation lawsuit against him for claims he made at a press conference held in Parliament. He was prevented from taking the floor against Prawit during a no-confidence debate in February after the opposition’s allotted time was used up by Pheu Thai Party.
Another online campaign took place in June after Rangsiman spoke out in Parliament about the disappearance of self-exiled activist Wanchalearm Satsaksit in Cambodia, which the opposition MP linked to Thai authorities.
Thai netizens used the hashtag “#SaveRome” in support of Rangsiman against threats and intimidation tactics.
Eating sandwiches in protest
Born in southern Phuket province on May 31, 1992, Rangsiman took a law degree and master’s at Thammasat University.
“Rome”, as he is known among friends, became a leading figure of opposition against the junta following the 2014 military coup. With mass protests banned, he led various innovative demonstrations to challenge the powerful regime.
Just a month after the coup, the young activist came under the media spotlight when he led a “sandwich-eating protest” against military rule. His involvement in such events earned him fame as a staunch critic of the junta but also led to multiple charges against him, including for “instigating disturbances”.
After being elected as a first-time MP last year, Rangsiman listed all the nine cases against him in his brief bio submitted to the House of Representatives Secretariat.
In 2015, Rangsiman joined other student leaders in forming the New Democracy Movement, which held regular protests against the military rule.
He later formed the Democracy Restoration Group (DRG) to campaign against the junta-backed draft Constitution. Rangsiman defied a ban on protesting against the draft and in June 2016 was twice sent to Bangkok Remand Prison by a military court.
The draft Constitution was passed by a national referendum in August.
Rangsiman has admitted that his family are dismayed by his activism, but said he is motivated by the need to create a better future for Thailand.
“My family is not happy with me becoming a political activist and having problems with the law. I have disappointed my family, but they cannot take care of me forever. I have to take care of myself while I live here, so I want to create a better future for our country.”
Rangsiman’s DRG then joined the “People Who Want to Vote” campaign to push for general elections to be held in November 2018, as pledged by General Prayut Chan-o-cha, then head of the ruling junta National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO).
The national vote eventually took place the following year in March.
‘No passion for politics’
Rangsiman said in February 2018 that he had no passion to become a politician as he wanted to be a lecturer. However, he changed his mind less than a year later after his law professor Piyabutr Saengkanokkul persuaded him to join the Future Forward Party – which Piyabutr co-founded with auto-parts tycoon Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit shortly before the 2019 general elections.
Backed by mass support from young voters, Future Forward became the third-largest party in the House of Representatives, with 81 MPs.
For many people, student activists lack any hidden agenda so they are more reliable than politicians, said Rangsiman.
“However, you can’t be a student forever. You have to move on one day to continue with your activism. You can become an NGO worker, an activist or a politician,” he said.
After Future Forward was dissolved by the Constitutional Court in February, Rangsiman was among 54 remaining MPs who moved to join Kao Klai.
By Thai PBS World’s Political Desk