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Thailand: Is royal reform a far-fetched dream?

Intent on shaking up Thailand's current political order, the pro-democracy movement has broken a long-standing taboo by openly criticizing the all-powerful and wealthy monarchy.

A pro-democracy demonstrator holds a placard as they walk past a portrait of King Maha Vajiralongkorn during a Thai anti-government mass protest

The Thai monarchy has for decades wielded enormous influence over developments in the country

Demonstrators with Thailand's youth-led, pro-democracy movement have during their protests broken a long-held taboo about publicly discussing and questioning the royal family.

In their latest act of defiance, there have been calls on social media to mark the king's birthday on Wednesday, a celebration where people traditionally don yellow, by solemnly wearing black instead.

The protest movement — which in recent months has focused its complaints on Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha's handling of the pandemic as Thailand struggles with surging COVID-19 cases — began coalescing in mid-2020. At its peak late last year, the movement saw hundreds of thousands of protesters calling for the government's resignation and a more transparent and accountable monarchy.

"The protests seem to have wound down for now but I believe the protesters have achieved a tremendous amount, in terms of making the issue of monarchical reform public," Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a Thai academic and prominent critic of the monarchy living in exile in Japan, told DW.

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It is a sentiment shared by James Buchanan, a researcher on Thai politics at the City University of Hong Kong, who believes public discussion of the monarchy is "an enormous development."

"The real achievement of the movement has been in breaking taboos around criticizing the institution and overcoming fear of the notorious lese majeste law that protects it," he said.

Thailand's lese majeste law, or Article 112, protects the royal family from criticism and carries a penalty of up to 15 years in prison for each count.

Repealing the law is among the demands set out by demonstrators in a 10-point manifesto, which also calls for a reduction of the monarchy's political power, including an end to royal endorsements of coups d'etat and a slashing of the enormous royal budget.

"Talking about the monarchy is already difficult. But to push for a reform like this is even more elusive," said Pavin.

Monarchy holds sway over politics

Thailand is nominally a constitutional monarchy, with the king officially staying out of the political process. But in reality, the palace has for decades wielded enormous influence over developments in the country, repeatedly stepping in to alter the political discourse and maintain ultimate control.

Thai King Maha Vajiralongkorn

King Maha Vajiralongkorn has taken significant steps to consolidate the monarchy's financial and military power

The kingdom has a long history of turbulent politics, alternating between military rule and unstable civilian governments. 

Since 1932, when absolute monarchy was abolished, Thailand has lived through 13 successful coups, each one with the king's royal seal of approval.

After disputed elections in 2019, Maha Vajiralongkorn, who sits at the apex of power in Thailand, endorsed former coup leader Prayuth's military-heavy cabinet.

Since ascending to the throne following the death of his father, the revered Bhumibol Adulyadej, Vajiralongkorn has taken significant steps to consolidate the monarchy's financial and military power, bringing crown coffers and influential army units under his direct control.

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These measures have only added to his unpopularity among the country's younger generations.

Government stifling dissent

In response to the protest campaign, the government has intensified its crackdown on demonstrators, arresting key leaders and charging them with sedition and royal defamation.

"If it turns out that the government tries to silence us by using Article 112 no matter what, we will clearly see that we could only praise the king in this country, but questioning is not allowed," Patsaravalee Tanakitvibulpon, a prominent activist who is facing criminal charges for speaking out, told DW.

Last week, prosecutors indicted the 25-year-old engineering student and 11 others on lese majeste and sedition charges for their leading roles in a rally outside the German Embassy in October last year.

King Maha Vajiralongkorn proceeds to the Temple of the Emerald Buddha in Bangkok to proclaim himself the Patron of Buddhism

Thailand's lese majeste law protects the royal family from criticism and carries a penalty of up to 15 years in prison

Like other lese majeste defendants who have been released on bail, she was freed under the condition that she would not engage in activities that "dishonor the monarchy," among others.

Although a record number of people have been charged under the draconian legislation this year, Buchanan believes the fact that there has yet to be a conviction is significant.

"Before the recent protests, there had been an unofficial suspension of the law for about two or three years. This all suggests that the authorities are aware that applying the law is not without risks," he said. 

No going back for public debate

For the movement to succeed, Pavin believes the protesters must cooperate with political parties in order to ensure that their agenda is brought from the streets to parliament.

But with the current parliamentary setup, the odds are stacked against the pro-democracy movement in their quest to reform the monarchy.

"We all know it is extremely difficult," said Patsaravalee, pointing to the fact that the establishment is backed by the country's elite still wields ultimate power with the 250 junta-appointed senators.

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While there are growing calls for Prayuth to resign, the 25-year-old said that without changing the political order, replacing the prime minister will not have much effect. 

The very fact that these issues are now part of the public debate in Thailand is hugely significant in itself, and Patsaravalee believes the authorities will eventually be forced to address the protesters' demands.

"Many have become politically aware about the monarchy and they can't ignore the issue. Talking about it is being normalized," she said.

And even though true royal reform still appears to be a long way off, Patsaravalee doesn't think the prospect is too far-fetched. "We never imagined that people would be discussing the monarchy to this extent, but it's happening now," she said.