The egalitarian impulse in Thailand’s protests

More youthful Thais are breaking a taboo by challenging a monarchy that holds back democracy. Their brave demand for free speech is itself an embrace of civic liberty.

A pro-democracy protester wearing a mask that reads "Lese majeste" flashes a three-finger salute, a symbol of resistance, during an Aug. 3 protest in Bangkok, Thailand.

In recent weeks, Thailand has been rocked by the largest pro-democracy protests in years. Yet the size of the crowds is not really the news. Rather, it is a bold demand by many of the youthful demonstrators. They want to start a debate about the monarchy – a taboo topic in Thailand. 

Merely by speaking out about the king’s authority – and the military generals who currently rule in his name – the protesters have revealed how much the Southeast Asian nation now embraces civic values like free speech, equality, and self-governance. 

The Thai military, which took power in a 2014 coup, has arrested many of the protesters. It has also forced Facebook to restrict access to an anti-monarchy group called the Royalist Marketplace, which has over a million members. Facebook is suing the government while the academic who runs the site, Pavin Chachavalpongpun, plans to set up a new one. “Can you really block news and information in 2020?” he asks.

Young Thais see their on-again-off-again democracy being held back by a governing elite that enforces a reverence for the monarchy, or a belief that authority is derived from royal bloodlines. A lèse-majesté law imposes prison terms of up to 15 years for anyone who insults the monarchy, which is now headed by King Maha Vajiralongkorn. He ascended the throne in 2016 and, unlike his long-ruling father, has reigned with an aloof style. 

In a country where many in authority still claim power by pedigree or ancestral traits, the idea of universal rights and liberties has taken a long time to spread. Yet as protesters have made clear, the best democracy elevates the worthiest individuals to rule, regardless of genetic lineage or belief in due inheritance. 

“Power is never a good, unless he be good that has it,” said Alfred the Great, a pre-modern English king whose words are as modern as can be. The demands in Thailand for mutual respect and open-mindedness are the kind that have felled kings for centuries. Fewer Thais now see bloodlines as destiny. And more want a democratic society in which each individual can rise by their unique talents and their inherent ability to flourish.

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