A protester wearing make-up and angel wings holds a replica of a pro-democracy plaque at an anti-government rally by the Democracy Monument in Bangkok on Nov. 14. (Photo: AFP)
A large group of young demonstrators issued what observers have described as their most audacious challenge yet to Thailand’s conservative establishment by openly defying the monarch during a pro-democracy rally on Nov. 14.
As King Maha Vajiralongkorn and Queen Suthida passed in their motorcade by a pro-democracy protest at Bangkok’s Democracy Monument on their way to a ceremony to open a new section of the city’s light-rail, thousands of protesters turned their backs on the royals.
The young protesters were also holding up three fingers as their movement’s sign of defiance to Thailand’s military-allied government, which seized power in a coup in 2014 and retained it after controversial parliamentary elections last year.
In the predominantly Buddhist nation where royals are portrayed as semi-divine and commoners are expected to prostrate themselves in the presence of members of the royal family, especially the king and queen, such behavior is seen by Thai royalists as a grave insult to the monarchy.
Any openly voiced criticism of members of the royal family, however mild, is punishable by 15 years in prison per count in the country.
“Showing this sort of open disrespect is seen to border on blasphemy [to Thai royalists],” an American who teaches at a Catholic school in Thailand told UCA News on condition of anonymity. “[The young protesters] have thrown down the gauntlet to the establishment, but it’s a risky maneuver.”
Since July tens of thousands of young Thais, including high school and college students, have been staging spirited but peaceful rallies with the stated aim of forcing the government of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, a former junta chief, to resign.
Several young Thai Catholics have been participating in the pro-democracy rallies.
Among the demands issued by protesters is constitutional reform of Thailand’s monarchy, which they see as an ally of Thailand’s military-led regime but which royalists consider sacrosanct and above reproach.
By openly challenging the monarchy, which is portrayed in official discourse as a key pillar of the country, young protesters have broken a long-held taboo.
In doing so, however, they have drawn the ire of the institution’s supporters, known for their yellow shirts because the color is associated with the king in Thailand.
“This is a big deal. Such an open display of disrespect will draw yellow shirt and official responses,” notes an anonymous blogger who has been campaigning on behalf of the country’s political prisoners.
There are growing fears that royalists might physically attack pro-democracy protesters, triggering a violent confrontation. The authorities could also initiate a violent crackdown on protesters over their defiance of royal authority.
In contrast with the defiant stance adopted by the pro-democracy protesters, King Vajiralongkorn and Queen Suthida were treated with reverence by thousands of royalists gathered for the inauguration ceremony of the new light-rail line on Nov. 14.
People wearing yellow shirts were waving Thai flags and chanting “Long live the king!”
King Vajiralongkorn has called for unity. “Think well, do good, be hopeful, endure. Have unity in being Thai,” the monarch reportedly wrote on a picture of him and the queen held up by one supporter at the event.
Anti-government protesters have stressed, however, that true unity can only result from democratic reforms.
“Without the people, the government and monarchy will have no power,” said Panusaya Sithijirawattanakul, a protest leader who is a university student. “Are they willing to take a step back or find a consensus that we can agree on?”