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.
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.
“They think they own the country. They think they own us,” says a businessman and red-shirt supporter.
This backlash against royal tutelage is also a direct threat to the powerful Army, which styles itself as the defender of the palace. In 2006, it staged a coup against Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, whom it accused of disloyalty to the throne, a charge that he has denied. He now lives in exile and backs the red shirts.
Prime Minister Abhisit has backed the military’s campaign to root out republican plots and claimed that red-shirt protests had a “higher purpose” than forcing new elections. Asked for evidence of such plots, Abhisit cited antimonarchy writings by a minority of red shirts, in contrast to the majority who are “loyal subjects.”
“We have a number of cases where there is violations of law concerning the security of the monarchy, which is clearly there in print. People have openly said they have the aim to do just that. From there, we look at people who are involved in producing these kinds of materials,” he told a May 29 press conference with foreign media.
Since the coup, authorities have ramped up criminal prosecutions of anyone who defames the royal family using a century-old lese majeste law and a new cybercrime law. Last year, an engineer was sentenced to 10 years in jail for posting an antiroyal video on YouTube. Others have been investigated for comments posted online and for refusing to stand up for the royal anthem at a cinema.
Only a handful of these cases have received public attention. But judicial statistics collated by David Streckfuss, an American academic in Khon Kaen and an expert on lese majeste, show a wave of court judgments that have gone unnoticed, possibly because of social stigma. Between 2005 and 2009, the number of Thais prosecuted under the law rose from 33 a year to 164, according to his data. Those found guilty face a mandatory jail term of between three and 15 years.
Analysts say Abhisit is walking a difficult line between clamping down on antiroyal and other radical sentiments and gradually easing restrictions so as to promote social and political reconciliation, which he says should precede any elections. Some argue that the intimidation of opponents using draconian laws may become the norm as long as the military and the palace perceive an existential threat.
But Michael Montesano, an expert on Thai history at the Institute for Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore, says this threat may no longer be effective in justifying authoritarianism, unlike in the past. “While clearly designed as a strategy of demagoguery and polarization,” he says, “they have so far failed to generate as much hatred as would have been the case three or for decades ago.”