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Monarchy | The Ramas of Thailand

In Thailand, the King traditionally enjoyed a god-like status. The monarchs from the reigning Chakri dynasty that was founded in 1782 are called the Rama Kings, after the Hindu God Rama, the avatar of Lord Vishnu. The institution of the Thai monarchy, which is roughly 800 years old, has its roots in Hinduism and Buddhism. While the warrior Kings, under different dynasties, adopted Hindu Gods’ names as their official titles, the Theravada Buddhist concept of ‘Dhammaraja’ (kingship under dharma) has been the proclaimed goal of the monarchy. Even after it lost absolute powers in the 1932 Siamese revolution, the monarchy continued to enjoy an outsized influence in the government and society. Thailand’s strict lèse majesté rules shielded the King from public criticism, irrespective of the political changes. But the winds are now changing.

Thailand, which has seen 12 successful coups since 1932, is no stranger to mass uprisings. In the past, protests were largely focussed on the government or the powerful military. What makes the ongoing agitation, started earlier this year against the military-backed government of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-Ocha, different is that the protesters are increasingly targeting the monarchy.

On October 14, protesters, mainly school and college students, tried to disrupt a royal motorcade in Bangkok that was carrying Queen Suthida and flashed the three-finger salute, a symbol of resistance and solidarity which they borrowed from The Hunger Games books and movies. It was an unprecedented show of dissent to the monarchy by protesters in a country where public criticism of the institution could land one in jail for up to 15 years. A day after, the government declared a state of emergency, banning public gatherings and censoring the media coverage of the protests.

Not backing off

But the protesters did not back off. They termed the emergency yet another move by the government to take away their freedoms. A week later, as it was clear that the students were determined to press ahead with their agitation, the government cancelled the emergency and called for calm. Protests in Thailand began after the pro-democracy Future Forward Party was banned by the country’s top court in February. But public resentment against the ruling elite was building up since the 2014 military coup that brought Mr. Prayuth to power. Since then, the military rewrote the Constitution, awarding itself and the monarchy more powers and privileges, and held an election last year, which made sure that Mr. Prayuth continued as the Prime Minister.

The new King, Maha Vajiralongkorn (the 10th monarch of the Chakri dynasty, also called Rama X), who ascended the throne in 2016 after the death of his father Bhumibol Adulyadej (Rama IX), blessed the coup masters, while the Generals spent millions to promote the monarchy. The King was earlier required to appoint a regent while travelling abroad. The new Constitution did away with this clause. The junta gave the monarch full control of the Crown Property Bureau, which manages the palace’s roughly $30 billion worth of assets. King Vajiralongkorn also brought two Army units under his direct control. He has steadily expanded the powers of the palace, while the military has used the monarch’s backing to gain legitimacy for its actions.

For the protesters, if the Prime Minister represented a repressive regime, the King, who is mostly in southern Germany, is a symbol of extravagance at a time when the country was wrecked by the pandemic.

In August, Anon Nampa, a 35-year-old human rights lawyer, called for reforms to the monarchy. The protesters have since submitted 10 demands to the government, asking for a separation of the King’s assets and the Crown Property Bureau, reducing the Palace’s share in the national budget, a ban on the King from expressing his political views and endorsing future coups.

The protesters say they were not against the institution of monarchy. What they want are reforms — a democratic Thailand with the King being a ceremonial head of the state — not abolition. For now, the government has ignored such demands, and warned against “insulting” the monarchy. But the fact that even a state of emergency did not stop the protests poses a serious challenge to both the government and the King.

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Printable version | Nov 29, 2020 11:53:07 PM |

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