Geopolitics

“People were really angry.” The political journey of a young activist in the Thai struggle for democracy

H.We always knew that the fight would have consequences. But now he’s in the crosshairs of Thailand’s most feared law.

Tattep Ruangprapaikitseree, who is also nicknamed Ford, is instrumental in the monumental protests that have erupted against the military-backed government and monarchy since July. It’s a role that got him to grapple with the authorities. So far, he has filed six charges, including sedition and violating coronavirus assembly restrictions.

When the 23-year-old activist reports to the police on Thursday, he will also be charged with violating the Majesty – one of the toughest allegations of defamation in the world. The provision criminalizes insulting the Thai royal family, despite the fact that it has been used in practice against academics, politicians, journalists and activists. Violations can result in a prison sentence of up to 15 years.

In a video call from Bangkok, Tattep told TIME: “The company is using [lèse-majesté] Harassing and threatening people, demanding democracy and reforming the monarchy. “(The government has stated that it must enforce” all laws “to restore order as the youth-led movement becomes more violent and open.)

Together with other members of the Free Youth Movement, an online discussion forum he co-founded, Tattep organized an anti-government rally on July 18, which was attended by an estimated 2,500 people – the largest since the 2014 coup.

In the four months since then, the ranks of the movement have grown into one of the wildest uprisings Thailand has seen in decades. The momentum comes from angry young activists like Tattep, who have lived much of their lives under military rule. You defy a longstanding taboo and have dared to openly criticize a monarch. Their constitution demands awe of them, but one that they see as an obstacle to real democracy. At the end of last month, protesters met at Thailand’s oldest bank, Siam Commercial Bank, and demanded a financial investigation into its single largest shareholder: 68-year-old King Maha Vajiralongkorn, one of the richest and most powerful monarchs in the world.

Continue reading: Meet the lawyer trying to reform the Thai monarchy

The authorities have indicted the growing political challenge with little success. They arrested rally speakers and rolled out water cannons. But on the streets, the call to oust the military-backed prime minister and contain the power of the throne has peaked. Tattep says cracking down will only “add fuel to the fire”.

“They miscalculated the strength of the demonstrators,” says Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a Thai professor who works in Japan at the Center for Southeast Asian Studies at Kyoto University and was himself accused in 2014 under the laws of majesty. “What the demonstrators want this time is a channel for dialogue that will lead to reform of the monarchy.”

Royalists have accused the protesters of national haters and encouraged a tougher government response. Rumors of another coup ubiquitous in coup-ridden Thailand have increased, but the troops have so far remained in their barracks. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, the former junta leader who took power six years ago, has pledged to step up measures against those who break the law and threaten the “beloved monarchy”. All sides seem to agree that the country is approaching a breaking point.

Pro-democracy protesters greet with three fingers during an anti-government demonstration in Bangkok, Thailand on November 27, 2020.

Stringer / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Why Thais protest against their king

The fuse for these protests leads back to what activists see as a military-monarchical choke-hold over public life. Protesters say the crown gives legitimacy to military rule if the army reaffirms the palace’s position as Thailand’s highest moral authority. Since the 1932 revolution, the country has seen 13 successful coups, with the sovereign playing an important role in assisting military takeovers. The youngest junta rewritten the constitution last year and retained power in elections marked by confusion and allegations of fraud – allegations that Prayuth denies. The government, which was filled with military loyalists, was approved by the king.

After taking the throne in 2016, King Vajiralongkorn consolidated power by bringing military units and crown property under his control, despite spending much of his time in Germany. The transfer of billions of dollars of royal assets into his personal property has sparked considerable scrutiny as Southeast Asia’s second largest economy – heavily reliant on tourism – is hit by the pandemic and experiences its worst economic contraction ever.

With so many Thai families in trouble, the king’s waste has served as a lightning rod for public anger. “People were really angry about the economy and the inequality,” says Tattep. “But the turning point was COVID.”

The king’s tabloid personal life has raised eyebrows too. Currently in his fourth marriage (this time to his former bodyguard), Vajiralongkorn has left a trail of bitter divorces and denied heirs. Last year he became the first monarch in nearly a century to appoint a royal wife alongside his wife. Then he released her before suddenly reintroducing her in September. The coexistence with his revered father could not be sharper. The late King Bhumibol Adulyadej maintained a humble image as a “man of the people”, which earned him great respect and recognition.

The political awakening of the Thai youth

Tattep was only 9 years old when he witnessed his first coup in 2006. At that time, the army ousted populist Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, accusing him of corruption and declaring martial law. But it would be another decade – and another coup – before Tattep saw what would serve as the political awakening of his generation.

He grew up in the heart of Bangkok in a working-class family that made him aware of the enormous inequality in his country. When he was in high school, his mother – the main breadwinner of the family – died. Tattep started working as a waiter, his father as a driver for a hail driving app.

While he was reconciling his job and his studies, bloody riots raged between rival political factions in the streets and pitted “red shirts”, supported by Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, Thaksin’s younger sister, against royalist “yellow shirts” of the establishment. In order to better understand his troubled country, Tattep decided to study political science after gaining admission to the prestigious Thai Chulalongkorn University.

On campus, he befriended fellow politician Netiwit Chotiphatphaisal – an activist whose refusal to prostrate himself in front of a statue of the late King Rama VI during an induction ceremony became a pivotal moment in Thai politics. The couple took inspiration from the umbrella movement that rocked Hong Kong in 2014 with its call for democratic elections. Netiwit made two trips to Hong Kong to visit Joshua Wong, the protagonist of the city’s protests. Later, Netiwit and Tattep invited Wong to Bangkok to speak on campus. Upon arriving at Bangkok Airport, Wong was arrested and then deported. The outraged students then staged a demonstration – the first Tattep had ever attended.

Continue reading: Meet the youthful face of resistance to Thailand’s junta

It was only last year that Tattep himself got the spotlight. He campaigned for marriage equality on the steps of Parliament in December, kissing his boyfriend, sending shock waves across the country’s conservative establishment and sparking a homophobic backlash online.

In Thailand, the status of LGBTQ + rights shows the discrepancy between the country’s international image as a socially acceptable playground for tourists and the traditional politics that rule the lives of many locals. While a proposal currently awaiting parliamentary approval would legalize same-sex unions, the bill would still not recognize these partnerships as marriages. Outside of the entertainment and fashion industries, LGBTQ + representation remains limited.

Within the democracy movement, some oppose the campaign for gender equality as a secondary struggle that can wait until after political reform. But “We can do both at the same time,” says Tattep. “The LGBT are oppressed. If we are fighting for democracy, we must also fight for the oppressed. “

Thailand’s King Maha Vajiralongkorn waves to royalist supporters during a ceremony to commemorate the birthday of his father, the late Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej, in Sanam Luang, Bangkok on December 5, 2020.

LILLIAN SUWANRUMPHA / AFP via Getty Images

Indeed, the protests that erupted this summer have brought together a number of reasons for calling for the government to be dissolved, the constitution to be recast and an end to the harassment of rights activists. The students on the street are joined by feminists, Buddhist monks, activists, mountain ethnic minorities and Muslim activists.

Legal cases have since continued to rise against the figureheads of the movement. Among the first five activists to report to the police on November 30 about majesty complaints were human rights attorney Arnon Nampa, who was the first speaker this summer to publicly demand reform of the monarchy, and Panusaya Sithijirawattanakul, a student who is known to declaim a 10 – Points list of demands for monarchical reform. Nine more were called on December 8th. Tattep and several others have until December 17th.

Continue reading: The draconian legal weapon used to silence Thai dissent

Tattep says the allegation against him stemmed from a September 24 protest when he spoke about how he viewed the rise of the monarchy as a threat to democracy. “The king’s decisions are not accountable to the people,” he told TIME. “We need to talk about it.”

The past four months have opened up unprecedented space for public debate – even on previously taboo subjects like the king – but young activists are realizing that there is still much to struggle. “I’m just a small part of a big movement,” says Tattep, undeterred by the task ahead.

“This abnormal regime must end in our generation.”

Get the letter. Sign up to get the top stories you need to know right now.

Many Thanks!

For your security, we have sent a confirmation email to the address you entered. Click on the link to confirm your subscription and receive our newsletters. If you do not receive the confirmation within 10 minutes, please check your spam folder.

Write to Laignee Barron at Laignee.Barron@time.com.

Related Articles