Three activists who break Thailand’s deepest taboo
In the eyes of pro-royalists, Anon Nampa, Panusaya Sithijirawattanakul and Parit Chiwarak are trying to abolish the monarchy, but for fellow anti-establishment protesters they are heroes.
The three have become leading voices in the ongoing student-led protests calling for reform of the monarchy, a move seen as breaking deeply entrenched taboos in Thailand.
Their open challenge puts them at risk of arrest for lese-majeste, the penalty for which is up to 15 years in prison. So far, none of them has been charged with violating the draconian law.
However, Anon was arrested over sedition charges on Wednesday in relation to the speech on monarchy reform he delivered on August 3 at a Harry Potter-themed rally.
Arrest warrants for him, Panusaya and another four protest leaders were also issued on Wednesday morning for their roles in the August 10 protest at Thammasat University’s Rangsit campus, during offensive remarks were allegedly made about the monarchy. They are accused of sedition under Article 116 of the Criminal Code and of breaking the pandemic prevention law.
Thai PBS World’s Political Desk looks into the trio’s backgrounds, thoughts and what they want.
Anon Nampa: The lawyer who lifted the veil
The role of the monarchy – a taboo topic in Thailand – was first raised at a rally early this month by Anon Nampa, a human rights lawyer and pro-democracy activist.
At an anti-government demonstration dubbed “Harry Potter versus You-Know-Who or He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named”, held at Bangkok’s Democracy Monument on August 3, the activist delivered an almost unprecedented public speech on the role of Thailand’s monarchy.
Amid protesters dressed as characters from JK Rowling’s stories, the 35-year-old speaker took the stage and called for the power of the monarchy to be curbed. He claimed legislation issued by the post-coup Prayut government had given the monarch a free hand to manage the Crown’s property. An emergency decree issued at the time had also transferred two military units under HM the King’s direct supervision.
Anon stressed he was seeking reform of the constitutional monarchy, not its abolition.
Four days later, he was arrested on charges of sedition and breaching emergency law at a different rally on July 18. Bailed on condition that he does not repeat the same offences, Anon continued to make the same calls for monarchy reform at three rallies.
“We dream of a monarchy that coexists with democracy,” Anon said to cheers from a crowd of more than 10,000 people at Democracy Monument last Sunday, Thailand’s biggest protest in years. “We will keep dreaming. We must achieve this within our generation.”
Anon was born to a family of rice farmers in Roi Et’s Thung Khao Luang district and graduated in law from Ramkhamhaeng University.
He began working for human rights in 2006, the year that Thaksin Shinawatra’s government was overthrown in a military coup. Two years later, Anon began his career as a human rights lawyer before founding a legal practice to defend political prisoners and lèse majesté suspects amid the 2010 protests, earning himself a name as a lawyer for the red shirts. The high-profile activists he defended include Jatupat “Pai Dao Din” Boonpattaraksa and Amphon “Uncle SMS” Tangnoppaku.
Anon also aided Thai Lawyers for Human Rights in several lèse-majesté and human rights-related cases following the military coup of May 22, 2014.
The lawyer stepped up his political activism after the 2014 coup, co-founding the Resistant Citizen group in 2015 and joining the Democracy Restoration Group campaigning for the return of elections.
His activism turned him from law defender to law breaker. So far, he has been charged in 13 cases. Of the six cases that have concluded, three were thrown out and three resulted in fines totalling Bt2,200. Seven cases are pending, including some stemming from protests in 2018 to demand fair elections.
“It’s fine if I’m put in jail. I will still be able to conduct cases wearing a brown suit [prison uniform] and chains on my ankles. Let’s think whether that will look good or not,” said Anon, after being charged with organising a banned political gathering in 2015.
Despite his fierce and serious manner on rally stages, the pro-democracy activist is known for his humour. He starred in two protest music videos produced by Resistant Citizen – “Joob Yoei Chan-o-cha” to mock then PM and coup leader Prayut Chan-o-cha and “Yang Nee Tong Tee Khao” to protest the 2017 junta-sponsored draft of the Constitution.
In his spare time, Anon writes poetry – much of it politically inspired – and posts it on his Facebook account.
Panusaya Sithijirawattanakul: The girl with the 10-point manifesto
While Anon was the first person to publicly break the taboo, Panusaya Sithijirawattanakul is responsible for driving the monarchy debate forward.
In her closing statement at a rally last week, Panusaya called for change in the role of Thailand’s royal institution. The girl in the red blouse stepped into the national spotlight at a demonstration titled “Thammasat will not tolerate” at the university’s Rangsit campus on August 10 and read out a 10-point manifesto for monarchy reform.
Initiated by a group called the United Front of Thammasat and Demonstration, the 10 demands include scrapping the lese-majeste law, reducing public spending on the royal family and abolishing the Privy Council (King’s advisers) along with other “unnecessary units”.
Unlike Anon, Panusaya – or Roong as she is known to friends – is a new face among rally leaders.
The 21-year-old is spokesperson for the Student Union of Thailand (SUT) and is studying at Thammasat’s Faculty of Sociology and Anthropology. She first emerged in early June when she faced an arrest warrant for violating the Covid-19 emergency law by participating in an SUT-led protest over the disappearance of Wanchalerm Satsaksit, a Thai activist abducted by unknown assailants in Cambodia.
As a teenager, Panusaya had little interest in politics. According to her own account, the turning point came while she was revising for her university entrance exams and discovered interesting points about Thai political history. Curious, she sought more knowledge from her father, a keen follower of the political situation.
Panusaya says she has been tailed by authorities ever since proclaiming the manifesto and fears she will be arrested at any time.
The student activist insisted her movement was simply seeking ways to improve society and people’s quality of life, but acknowledged that the methods may shock more conservative citizens.
“When we abruptly declared [the manifesto] we were aware that many people would be very shocked. But we want to ask them to read [it] carefully and consider whether it’s true or not,” she said.
“We know there are some parts where they think like us. We can discuss and adjust [opinions]. Or if [they] disagree, we will accept the different [points of view] in order to help the country move forward,” she said.
“I know I am at risk of going to jail or being tortured or even dying,” she said. “But I don’t think this is a time to be afraid anymore.”
Parit Chiwarak: The ‘Penguin’ who won’t back down
Anti-establishment protest leader Parit “Penguin” Chiwarak had no chance to speak about the no-go topic on a rally stage. He first read about the 10-point manifesto last Saturday outside a court after being released on bail.
The 22-year-old student activist had been arrested the day before and charged with sedition and breaking disease control laws for co-organising a protest on July 18.
“My arrest must not be wasted, people must talk more publicly about the monarchy,” he said after reciting the 10-point call for royal reform delivered at Thammasat Rangsit on August 10.
“We have lifted the ceiling, there is no lowering it now.”
Parit is a co-founder and former president of the SUT and a regular participant in the youth-driven flash mobs against the Prayut government that first emerged last year.
The young activist first drew media attention at the tender age of 16. While studying at Bangkok’s prestigious Triamudom Suksa School, he unfurled a banner in front of Prayut in 2015 asking how Thai children can be kept from the path of corruption.
A year later, he won widespread support for speaking up against a draft Constitution, which threatened to deprive children of their 15 years of free education.
Since enrolling at Thammasat University’s Faculty of Political Science, his political involvement has deepened. He has often been accused of organising illegal rallies, yet he insists that the more he feels intimidated and abused by those in power, the more he wants to fight.
In his view, Thais had their future stolen in 2014, referring to the military coup and the events that followed.
By Thai PBS World’s Political Desk