(Published in the Bangkok Post as "An Unexpectedly Successful Protest" on 23 September 2020)
A new generation of Thai protesters has broken into the open, and while their defiant self-image as the generation that will finally fix things may be naive, they have already left their mark with the unexpectedly successful demonstration at Sanam Luang in the heart of old Bangkok on Sept 19-20.
In a country ruled by a pro-military government under the patronage of a king legally beyond criticism, it takes considerable courage to break into a locked campus to demonstrate and then take it to the streets despite stern warnings to the contrary.
Earlier generations of wily Thai protesters have shown similar pluck in going up against the long-entrenched military elite, with mixed results ranging from draconian crackdowns to unexpected bouts of reforms, but as any observer of Thai politics can readily attest, it takes a special kind of courage to speak out against the monarchy.
Historically, the Thai monarchy was fair game for criticism, at no time more so than in 1932 when the monarchy was disgraced and forcefully changed to better fit with nationalistic, if not entirely democratic, trends and aspirations of the time, but during the Cold War the kingship was re-invented, reinvigorated and buttressed with US support as a cultural hedge against communism.
This year marks the 88th anniversary of the 1932 transition from absolute to constitutional monarchy, and this landmark event, hidden in the dust bin of history during the Cold War, was proudly memorialised by the democratically-inclined demonstrators this past weekend. After the nervous night's vigil at Sanam Luang passed peacefully, the student leaders gathered to in centre of the symbolic heart of Bangkok to install a plaque commemorating the spirit of 1932.
Sanam Luang draws its symbolic strength from the neighbourhood. It is surrounded by universities, temples, an old palace and key government buildings. It once hosted a bustling weekend market and has long been popular with the public as a place to stroll and fly kites. It is to Bangkok what Tiananmen Square is to Beijing, a semi-sacred space, a space that invokes history, a fitting venue for demonstrations. In both Bangkok and Beijing, public access to the central contested space has been strictly limited in recent years. Both sites have been fenced in, but still retain a totemic power and remain geospatial magnets for those who want a national stage, government and opposition alike.
Thai students at Thammasat were specifically warned by authorities not to tread there, but they did anyway and made an overnight celebration of it. According to preliminary charges against the students, prosecution for "trespass" is likely.
Sanam Luang is also the designated site for royal ceremonies which enhances its reputational value but makes activities there more contentious.
Therein lies the crux of the 10 demands put forward by student protesters, and therein lies their fate. If the King is conciliatory to student calls for reform, reform is possible. If compromise and conciliation is not the mood of the day, things could get worse before getting better.
Student demands include calls for accountability from the authoritarian government of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha regarding the use of tax payers money. The constitution needs serious revision and draconian lese majeste laws need to be stricken from the books. Critics of the government should be free to express themselves without intimidation and arrest. The undemocratic parliament should be dissolved with truly democratic elections held. How can democracy work if some people are above the law?
The clouds of controversy hovering around the monarch have only thickened in recent months, basically through social media channels.
It's no coincidence that Sanam Luang, which means "Royal Field" was dubbed by speakers at the September 19 demonstration as "Sanam Ratsadorn" or the "People's Field".
Republican sentiment has never run strong in Thailand, more out of complacency and reverence for tradition than fear of reprisal, but there's a strong whiff of it in the air now.
Thammasat student activist, Panusaya Sithijirawattanakul, known by the nickname Rung, together with core student leader Panupong Jadnok, entered the locked gate of Thammasat University after authorities banned the protest, but addressed the King directly in some of her speeches.
Risking arrest, she was candid and outspoken about ideas that most only dare whisper in private: the monarchy needs to be reformed. Rung likes to dismiss talk of bluebloods as nonsense and credits the power of social media for creating awareness and "waking up" her generation.
Human rights lawyer Arnon Nampa, who was arrested along with Mr Panupong in August and similarly faces charges of sedition, gave a number of rousing, firebrand speeches from the stage and from the back of a truck during the Sanam Luang protests. He gingerly touched on the no-touch "third rail" of the monarchy in a way that electrified a nervous but generally supportive crowd.
Against all injunctions to the contrary, a significant portion of the protesters spent the night at Sanam Luang, regaled by recorded music and video and some live performances. There was a clever student drama that cast contemporary politics in the format of a traditional Chinese opera, a series of speeches and perhaps most edifying of all, live music. Among the performers were the talented "Rap Against Dictatorship" rappers known for their rousing condemnation of the 1976 crackdown.
Students also invoked the memory of the bloody 1973 protests and are calling for a national strike on Oct 14 this year in commemoration of the same. Though both events transpired nearly a quarter of a century before most of today's students were born, today's activists have an acute awareness of historic events in the long, winding struggle for democracy. Despite the legendary demonstrations of the past, the country is still better known for its frequent coups d'etat.
Although the date Sept 19 recalls the coup of 2006 that put the military firmly back in power, it is the echo of violence from the carnage directed against student demonstrators in the 1970s at Thammasat University and Sanam Luang that imbue the protest venue with echoes of the past.
Unlike the internecine partisan struggles of yellow shirts versus red shirts that followed the 2006 coup, the memory of the twin "October" demonstrations of the 70s harks back to the days when latter-day reds and yellows were youthful comrades, rebels in the same cause. As such, the older demonstrations serve to unite rather than polarise and divide as the more recent ones have done.
After a sleepless night under the watch of hundreds of phone cameras livestreams and breathless social media reports of police units on the move, buses blocking roads and barbed wire being strung across strategic intersections, the demonstrators planted their plaque in the ground and wisely withdrew. The timely exit avoided impending conflict and allowed for a victory lap of sorts as demonstrators took to the street adjacent to the field they had just occupied.
Rung, the shy but bold, straight-talking female student leader who was catapulted to fame for her 10-point manifesto calling for reform of the monarchy, was chosen to represent demonstrators in a one-on-one exchange with a police commander. She submitted a letter to be forwarded to palace authorities.
The police were out in force but remained restrained, if not amicable, and were clearly not looking for a fight. Though dogged by a reputation for corruption, Thai police tend not to engage street protesters as in Hong Kong and the US.
For better or worse, that woeful job is traditionally left to the military.
Philip J Cunningham is a media researcher covering Asian politics. He is the author of Tiananmen Moon.