Thailand votes today: Can it break the monarchy's grip on power?

Thais will vote in a close-fought election on 14 May. This is viewed, in part as a referendum about whether criticising the Thai monarchy is legal.

Thailand has some of the strictest laws in the world against insulting or defaming the king, and other members of royal family. The topic of monarchy, once taboo in Thailand, has been brought to light after tens and thousands of protesters called for checks to be placed on the institution's powers by 2020.

The protests were two sides in a passionate struggle over the role of Thailand's crown today. The election will determine whether Thailand, a Southeast Asian nation with 72 million people, can revive its once vibrant democracy or continue to slide towards authoritarian rule.

On the other side of the debate, conservative political parties are led by Prime Minister Prayuth chan-ocha. The general has ruled Thailand for nine long years since he seized power in a military coup. He and his supporters claim that changing the law would lead to the end of the monarchy and have pledged to defend the royals.

The progressive Move Forward Party is in second place, and claims that the law should be changed because it's being used to create political weapons. The Move Forward Party is now fielding several young people who were involved in the 2020 protests.

Sunai Phasuk is a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch in Thailand. She said, "Perhaps the most fundamental fault line in Thai society has to do with the monarchy."

The youngest daughter of former prime minister Thaksin, who was ousted in 2011, and frontrunner for the position of premier is treading very carefully. Her populist billionaire father is one of Thailand's most divisive politicians. The king has given permission for the return of Thai citizens only in 2006.

Paetongtarn Shinawatra is the youngest daughter of former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and the Pheu Thai Party’s candidate for prime minister. She addressed the final major campaign of the party ahead of the general elections on 14 May in Bangkok, Thailand. AP

Thaksin has consistently been accused by royalists of wanting to overthrow monarchy. He denies this charge. Paetongtarn said her party Pheu Thai would not abolish the law that protects the monarchy against criticism. However, she believes that reform must be discussed openly in parliament.

According to opinion polls, the United Thai Nation party, led by Prayuth is in third place, behind Pheu Thai which has been ranked first. Recently, the Move Forward Party has seen a rise in popularity. It is currently polling at No. 2.

Move Forward, the largest party in the country, is pushing for a law change. This has angered conservatives who accuse it of undermining monarchy. The party wants to reduce the prison sentences of those who violate the law, and to designate the Bureau of the Royal Household to be the only agency that can file lawsuits. The current law allows any Thai citizen to lodge a complaint.

Conservative politicians have threatened Move Forward's dissolution. The previous version of the party, the Future Forward Party was dissolved by the Constitutional Court in 2020. Move Forward, recognizing the sensitivity of the reform issue, has tried to moderate their position by stating that reform will not be a priority in its campaign.

Since decades, the Thai monarchy has had a close relationship with the Thai military. The army reminds the public frequently that it is its true protector. Thais learn from an early age to respect the king, and any criticism is forbidden.

Many Thais today no longer pay attention to the royal anthem when it is played in public places such as cinemas. Royalist Marketplace was a Facebook group created to mock the monarchy. It had over one million members when Facebook banned access in 2020 citing a Thai Government request.

The law criminalising the criticism of the monarchy has a maximum penalty of 15 years and a minimum of 3 years. This is the only law that Thailand has imposed a minimum prison term. Following the 2020 protests the authorities have charged 223 people including 17 minors for violating Article 112 of the law.

Thailand's Prime Minister Prayuth chan-ocha makes a gesture to his supporters during a rally for the final general election in Bangkok, Thailand. AP

Tantawan "Tawan" Tuatulanon (21-year-old law-student) was accused of breaking the rule 2022 when she and her friends asked if the royal motorcade caused inconvenience for Bangkok residents.

She has pressed political parties in recent weeks to amend the law, which she supports abolishing, after the elections. Tantawan, a Tantawan activist was arrested on Wednesday after she demanded the release of 15-year old charged with breaking the law.

Tantawan said, 'I don't think we need any laws that protect anyone or any family'. Tantawan had mounted a protest hunger strike against the government earlier this year. He is not a demigod or god, but a human being like us.

Bhumibol Adulyadej was revered by Thais, but his son spent most of his time living in Germany. He has become more visible since the 2020 protests.

Prayuth, in the wake of protests against the monarchy, instructed all government officials that they should 'use every law' possible to prosecute those who criticised it. Royalists intensified their campaign against those they believed insulted the monarchy, filing more complaints and threatening anti-monarchy activist.

Warong Dechgitvigrom (a former doctor) founded Thailand's very first far-right political party in 2021. He did this to respond to what he called 'the Three Fingers Mob', which referred to the three finger salute used by young Thais during the protests of 2020.

He says that the current law protecting monarchy is not enough as it only protects four members of the royal families. He said that former Thai kings and princesses, as well as the word "monarchy" itself, should be protected.

Warong, who is considered to have extreme views, says he has gathered between 6,000 and 7,000 signatures in support of his proposal. He also claims to be confident that he will collect the 10,000 signatures required for the House of Representatives consider passing the bill.

Warong believes that people must understand the Thai monarchy as unique. He said that the former French monarchy was characterized by oppression. He said, 'But we are like fathers and children.' We have good feelings with each other, and there are no negative feelings.

In Bangkok, a policeman and volunteers check the ballots in Thailand's general elections. AP

These views do not reflect the feelings of many young people towards the king. During the 2020 protests, the protesters questioned wealth of the royal family which is among the richest families in the world.

Kasit Piromya said that it would be difficult for Warong to lead a successful political campaign in support of the constitutional monarchy, because young people "don't understand what it is for them."

Kasit, in response to calls for reforming the monarchy, said: 'If you can't speak out, it gives more ammunition to the Thaksin-supporters to say that 'We're more democratic'.

Arnond Sakowawich, assistant professor of statistics, National Institute of Development Administration said that Article 112 is necessary to preserve because the king, the royal family, and their representatives do not defend themselves from criticism.

Arnond who is well-known for his royalist beliefs, said that Thailand has a very different culture. People believe the king to be their parent and that parents will never harm their children. There must be someone to protect the King.

Many royalists, in their desire to protect the monarchy and its institution, may end up doing more harm than good.

Siripan Nogsuan sawasdee is the head of Chulalongkorn University's department of government. He said that it was "very precarious" and "risky" for political parties like Thai Pakdee use the monarchy to campaign.

She said that even though the monarchy was above politics, they were now involved in the division. It will, inevitably, divide voters and political parties.

Sui-Lee Wee, Muktita Suhartono (c. 2023) The New York Times Company

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May 14, 2023 09.00:22 IST