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When Panusaya Sithijirawattanakul decided to risk going to jail by calling for reforms to Thailand’s powerful monarchy, she had no idea how people would respond. In the hours before, she felt like she might faint. After turning to her friends for reassurance, she walked on to the stage of a major protest rally in Bangkok and calmly delivered a speech that would shake the country.
In front of thousands of students, she called for the power and wealth of Thailand’s king to be curbed – challenging an institution protected by a strict lèse-majesté law and long considered untouchable. Its budget should be reduced, the king’s private funds should be separated from the crown assets and the king should not endorse any further coups, she said, reading from a 10-point list. Criticism of the monarchy should not be forbidden, she added.
“If the people [disagreed], it was over,” said the 21-year-old student, looking back on that day in August.
In September, tens of thousands of people gathered for another, student-led demonstration, at which Panusaya not only reiterated demands for curbs to the monarchy’s power, but dramatically hand delivered them to the king’s privy council.
Another protest is planned for Wednesday, when students intend to assemble at Bangkok’s Democracy Monument and march to Government House. Ultra-royalist groups have announced plans to hold counter-protests.
On Tuesday afternoon, police arrested 21 protesters who had gathered to prepare for the demonstration, and attempted to clear the area to make way for the king, Maha Vajiralongkorn, who was passing through on his way to a ceremony to mark four years since the death of his father, Bhumibol Adulyadej. According to Human Rights Watch, police “kicked, punched, and threw some protesters to the ground”. Some protesters threw paint at officers who were arresting them, the group said. Crowds chanted “release our friends” as the motorcade passed and gave a three-finger salute – taken from the Hunger Games film trilogy and harnessed as a pro-democracy symbol. On Twitter, #Monarchysocialtrash trended.
The king, who spends most of his time in Germany, is currently visiting Thailand and is expected to pass through the area again on Wednesday.
Protesters have criticised him for spending most of his time in Europe, and his presence has also provoked questions in the German parliament. The foreign minister, Heiko Maas, said last week that the government had “made it clear that politics concerning Thailand should not be conducted from German soil”.
Protesters who turn out in support of Panusaya believe it impossible to end Thailand’s cycle of street protests and coups, or to have a true democracy, without reforming the monarchy. Their opponents say they are nation-haters and puppets of a third-party, and that they will bring instability.
Panusaya rejects the allegations. “Nation is not the monarchy. Nation is the people. So we do not hate the nation as they claim,” she said. And the idea that she is funded by a foreign power or political party? “Even my mother is unable to manipulate me. Who can manipulate me?”
Her parents did try – and fail – to persuade her not to criticise the monarchy. “They were afraid that I would be imprisoned and assaulted,” she said. Speaking out against the establishment is risky. Although the king has apparently requested no prosecutions be made under the lèse-majesté law for now, other charges have been used against protesters. Panusaya faces charges of sedition, which carries a maximum seven-year sentence, and of breaking Covid prevention measures to take part in a public gathering. Nine exiled critics of Thailand’s military and monarchy have disappeared over recent years, according to rights groups.
Outside her student dormitory, she has seen men she believes to be plainclothes officers. “When going outside, I have friends accompany me,” she said, adding that fellow students also help her to juggle activism with her degree in sociology and anthropology.
Panusaya remembers first questioning the role of the monarchy as a child. At school, she wondered why she was asked to draw portraits of the king at school, with the messages “Long live the king” and “We love the king”. Once, a royal motorcade passed by her home and she was told to go and sit on the footpath. “I didn’t want to be there. I had a feeling like ‘Who are you? Why are we forced to be there?’,” she said.
At high school and university, she began discussing politics, and the role of the monarchy with friends. She believes she has a duty to speak up in order to break the cycle of Thailand’s dysfunctional politics.
There have been 13 successful coups since the end of absolute royal rule in 1932. The latest, in 2014, was led by the former army general Prayuth Chan-ocha, who remains in power following disputed elections last year.
“We have known the root cause for a long time. But no one dared to talk about it. Now I feel that I am ready to do it.” Thai society, she believes, is also ready.
Protests have erupted at a time when Thailand’s tourism-dependent economy has been devastated by the coronavirus pandemic. “Many people are jobless, do not have food to eat, and kill themselves due to hunger,” she said. “The problems are spreading.”
In the absence of reliable polling, the strength of public support for the students’ demands is hard to assess. There is fierce opposition to the protest movement, and what conservatives consider to be the provocative way in which young people have challenged the king. Yet, she believes attitudes around what can and can’t be said in public are shifting. The protesters describe this change as “heightening the ceiling”.
Panusaya thinks change is possible. A year ago she believed that monarchy reform was a decade away, but now she thinks it could come around far more quickly. “We have to achieve it,” she said. “We won’t know [it is possible] if we don’t have that hope.”
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: The king and I: the student risking jail by challenging Thailand’s monarchy | Thailand