By Patpicha Tanakasempipat, Chayut Setboonsarng and Matthew Tostevin
BANGKOK (Reuters) – As they paraded through a Bangkok shopping mall in crop tops to mock the King of Thailand, protesters made an inappropriate sight among the festive decorations.
They brought stares, smiles and some muted cheers, but the few dozen activists far lacked the tens of thousands who joined previous anti-government protests that broke the taboo of criticizing King Maha Vajiralongkorn.
After months of street demonstrations that have shaken Thailand’s establishment, the best-known figures in a movement that drew tactics and inspiration from protests in Hong Kong told Reuters that they are at a critical time.
There is disagreement over strategy, fatigue, many accusations of a royalist setback and now a coronavirus outbreak that could make mass rallies tough.
“I think most people are exhausted,” said Parit ‘Penguin’ Chiwarak, 22, who helped lead the crop protest, noting that graduation at the end of college made it difficult for students to attend.
“We will try again next year,” he told Reuters. “We will not stop, no matter what.”
Government spokeswoman Rachada Dhnadirek said authorities were not against protesters expressing their views, but an increase in coronavirus cases meant there were currently no large collections for any reason.
The crop protest, however, showed how far the discussion has shifted in Thailand with its defiance of the royal insult law by openly lamping a king depicted wearing a crop top in European tabloids.
But the rift between protesters has become clearer as they discuss how best to maintain their push next year to remove former Junata leader and Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, rewrite the constitution and limit the king’s powers.
The main factions are student protesters affiliated with Thammasat University, including Parit and Panusaya ‘Rung’ Sithijirawattanakul, and the Free Youth group, which started the protests in July. Both have become allies and have called themselves the “People” movement.
But Parit and Panusaya, 22, have distanced themselves from the launch of Free Youth’s Restart Thailand movement with a logo whose RT letters look like a hammer and seal.
Critics of restarting Thailand say it risks exposing some people with apparent communist symbolism in a Southeast Asian country where a two-year-long communist uprising ended in the 1980s.
“Many people are confused,” said protester Kent Ruqsapram, who brought a sign to an event that said “We are fighting for democracy, not communism” to make his point.
Meanwhile, Free Youths Jutatip Sirikhan, 22, said the group will focus on its own campaign next year despite the previous alliance with the student leaders.
“We want to create more participation from all groups, whether it is workers, farmers or those without access to social welfare,” she told Reuters.
This is not the first time divisions have emerged, and both groups say they have the same goal of breaking the decades-old grip on the army and the palace.
“Both are still moving in the same direction, just use different ways,” said Arnon Nampa, 36, a rights lawyer who said he aimed to intensify pressure on monarchy reforms next year as the campaign for change continues.
“The longer this continues, the more people will understand the problems and sit with us – like water eroding rocks,” he told Reuters.
There is little to show about the core requirements.
Prayuth has rejected calls to stand down, the discussion on the constitution will only continue on government terms, and the Royal Palace is promoting a public relations campaign rather than entertaining any opportunity for change.
“The protests are weakening,” Warong Dechgitvigrom, 59, of the Thai Pakdee royalist group, told Reuters. “The government can just let the movement die alone.”
The Royalists are behind a massive number of charges against protest leaders – with a coordinated effort described by Warong to bring complaints to the police for charges that could lead to up to 15 years in prison.
Anyone can bring such a royal insult. Reasons have included everything from using the king’s own words disrespectfully to dressing in clothes that parody the royals.
At least 35 activists are now facing majestic charges – many of them multiple charges, according to data from Thai human rights lawyers: Parit alone faces eight. The total charges against all activists now number in the hundreds, including those for sedition, computer crimes, illegal collection and warring coronavirus restrictions.
“It can drain a lot of time, resources and energy,” said Free Youths Tattep ‘Ford’ Ruangprapaikitseree, 23, who faces six charges, including reading majesty and agitation. “It would be a lie if I said I did not lose heart sometimes.”
Like other prominent protesters, he is not currently detained but is under police investigation to see if there is sufficient evidence for trial.
PROTESTS IN PANDEMI
Thailand is currently facing a new outbreak of coronavirus with hundreds of cases reported among migratory fishermen – a discouragement to mass gatherings, if not the full lockdown the country went through in early 2020.
“We fought the pandemic and did so without spreading the virus,” Parit said. “We can do more online.”
As in Hong Kong, online mobilization has been a hallmark of Thailand’s youth-driven demonstrations.
However, demonstrating enough support to force change in the real world is a bigger challenge. Provincial elections on December 20 largely returned to establishment politicians despite being challenged for the first time by a movement with youth support.
And the Royal Palace’s feedback is growing.
King Vajiralongkorn, 68, has launched an intensive PR counter-offensive with Queen Suthida (42) as a driving force in the campaign during a visit to Thailand.
The king’s daughters and his 35-year-old royal sister, Sineenat Wongvajirapakdi, also attended lavish public events.
Sometimes spoken to the crowds, sometimes signed in royal images, the mantra is one of national unity under the monarchy – whose power and prestige were strengthened during the seven-decade reign of the monarch’s late father King Bhumibol Adulyadej.
“The monarchy and the people are inseparable,” the king told the crowds at a recent stop.
And while the number has rarely been as large as the tens of thousands who have joined the protests, appearances play every night on the royal television news that is still popular with older Thais.
“This has won them many hearts and minds,” said Termsak Chalermpalanupap, a guest of Singapore’s ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.
After being absent in Europe for most of 2020, the king’s return to Thailand in October marked the start of an intense performance. A Reuters figure showed over 40 events, including more than a dozen, in which the king spoke individually to members of the public – previously unheard of.
For protesters, it is also a sign that they have influence and need to continue, even if it takes years.
“You think the government has not responded, but it has,” said Arnon, the rights lawyer. “The king who makes unusual trips is an answer. The government that uses the law to suppress or silence expressions is an answer.”
“The fire is trapped. It will continue to burn,” he said.