Positions have clearly hardened in Thailand as a protest for greater democratic freedoms and against the ruling government appears to be hardening into a battle to define the role and powers of the monarchy.
While the protestors ~ mostly youth ~ had been seeking reforms of the monarchy as one of their demands, the other two being resignation of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha and amendments to the Constitution that allowed him to retain power, the role of the King has now emerged as the primary focal point.
The government, which had for the past months, ignored calls for reforms in the monarchy, has now made it clear that it proposes to invoke harsh lese majeste laws to arrest protest leaders.
Mr Prayuth has made it clear that his government “will now enforce all laws available to deal with protesters who break the law and ignore other people’s rights and freedom.”
He was quoted as saying: “The protest situation is still escalating and may lead to more conflict and violence. If we allow this to continue, it would cause damage to our nation, our beloved monarchy, and the peace and safety of the general public.” It would appear that the establishment, which knows it is on a weak wicket as far as the manner of the Prime Minister’s appointment is concerned, has decided to focus its counter-narrative to the monarchy in the hope that the reverence most Thais once had for the institution will help rein in the protests. But the strategy may not be working.
Protestors this week announced plans to gather outside the Crown Property Bureau, but when police banned demonstrations within 150 metres of the establishment, quickly decided to shift the venue to the Siam Commercial Bank in which King Vajiralongkorn is the main shareholder.
After ascending the throne, the King had controversially transferred assets held by the Crown Property Bureau ~ including several prime properties and shares in major companies ~ to his own name. The protestors have announced their rally is aimed at reclaiming assets that belong to the people, possibly the most direct challenge to the monarchy.
They want a clear division between the King’s personal properties and those held by the palace and a reduction in the budgetary allocation for the monarchy. While the King has support among a section of the Thais, some of whom have taken to the streets in counter-protests, the hardening of stances appears to have placed the confrontation on a dangerous wedge. If the monarchy does indeed command widespread support, as the establishment hopes it does, the gambit may pay off.
But if the sentiments voiced by protestors are shared by the millions of Thais who have watched the drama unfold, the institution of the monarchy itself may be in serious peril, one that the government may attempt to stave off with more violence than hitherto seen.