Thailand cites plots against king for clampdown on red-shirt dissent
Thailand’s government accuses the red-shirt opposition of trying to topple revered King Bhumibol. Critics argue it’s using the monarchy – and strict laws against defaming it – as an excuse to crack down.
Two weeks after the first bloody clashes with red-shirt protesters, Thailand’s military spokesman handed out a printed flow chart. It drew links between more than 20 opposition figures, including three former prime ministers, key protest leaders, several exiled activists, and a Thai restaurant owner in California.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
The point? To allege that the opposition was plotting to topple Thailand’s 218-year-old monarchy.
Such charges carry a sting: Royal defamation is punishable with jail time, and closet republicans live in fear of exposure. The claims also stirred dark memories of 1976, when a royalist militia massacred Thai students accused of similar disloyalty.
Three weeks later, after failed peace negotiations, the military sent in troops to end the red-shirt rally. The May 19 crackdown raised the toll during two months of protests to 88 killed and about 2,000 injured, the worst political violence seen in a generation. The government has blamed pro-red “terrorists” for fomenting much of the violence, angering protesters who say troops killed unarmed civilians.
As Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva struggles to govern his bitter, divided nation, the royalist fears stirred by the demonstrations – and repackaged by the military for media consumption – remain a potent force. For now, the clampdown on red-shirt dissent is framed as a law-and-order operation that requires continued emergency rule and the suspension of civil rights in Bangkok and 22 provinces. Human rights groups say hundreds of activists have been detained without trial, including several accused by the military of plotting against the crown.
“The protection of the monarchy is the Abhisit government's ultimate trump card. That trump card is not needed now because the Reds have been dispersed and the government survived a no-confidence debate,” says Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of the Institute for Strategic and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok.
Backlash against the king
King Bhumibol Adulyadej is the world’s longest-reigning monarch and is revered by many Thais as a father figure. While his constitutional powers are limited, his influence is extensive and he has mediated in previous political crises. Some red-shirt leaders called on the king to intervene in the current conflict, to no avail.
Bhumibol has been confined to a hospital since September. His fading health has sharpened concerns over the suitability of his successor, Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, and the palace’s vulnerability in a period of political turmoil. Much of this debate is conducted behind closed doors due to legal and social constraints.
During the protests, red-shirt leaders repeatedly criticized Thailand’s aristocracy as a brake on democracy and development, a message that resonated with rural and working-class supporters. In private, some activists go further, saying the royal family must butt out of politics or face the consequences if their allies lose power.