Two soldiers of the Royal Thai Armed Forces. Source: Pittaya Sroilong, Flickr CC
Two soldiers of the Royal Thai Armed Forces. Source: Pittaya Sroilong, Flickr CC

The political situation in Thailand is an unsettling one. Thailand has had a long history of military coups, but the latest one brings to light numerous problems regarding democracy, human rights and freedom of expression. Since the coup in 2006 the use of the infamous “lèse majesté” law has increased exponentially, and is often used as a political weapon by the monarchists in the ongoing clashes between the Redshirt and Yellowshirt movements. Royal approval is more important than ever in Thai politics, but for how long?   

The Yellowshirt and Redshirt movements are political pressure groups that were formally founded in 2006 during and after the 2006 coup.  This was when the military removed former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and his government from office. The junta proclaimed numerous reasons for the coup and accused Thaksin’s government for, among other things, creating a rift in society, insulting the King and weakening the military. The Yellowshirts, a group mainly consisting of royalists, Bangkok upper-class and the military, approved of the coup, while the Redshirts supported the Thaksin government, opposed the 2006 coup and the military and royal interventions in Thai politics.

Anti-Thaksin activist wearing Guy Fawkes mask and holding a portrait of Thai King Bhumibo. Source: inmediahk, Flickr CC
Anti-Thaksin activist wearing Guy Fawkes mask and holding a portrait of Thai King Bhumibo. Source: inmediahk, Flickr CC

May 22nd 2014, the Royal Thai Armed Forces led by General Prayuth Chan-ocha launched a coup d’etat to overthrow the caretaking government after six months of political crises regarding the government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, sister of former PM Thaksin Shinawatra. The junta issued an interim constitution granting itself amnesty and sweeping power. The junta also established a military dominated national legislature which later unanimously voted General Prayuth Chan-Ocha as the new PM of the country. The coup was received with applause from the Yellowshirts and protests from the Redshirts however, the protests lost momentum shortly after King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s endorsment of Prayuth Chan-Ocha as the new prime minister. The frequent power grabs by the military has routinely been justified by claiming it was in the purpose of defending the monarchy, and in the eyes of most Thai people royal endorsement gives legitimacy to a coup. No coup in Thailand that wasn’t royally endorsed has been successful.

During his 68 years of rule, King Bhumibol Adulyadej has made great efforts reducing poverty and developing Thailand from an almost completely agrarian society, to a substantially urban society with a globalized economy. But it’s not only the practical deeds he have done, his manners, gentleness and detachment from the world has also made him something of a spiritual leader and inspiration for the people. King Bhumibol Adulyadej is a very loved, respected and even worshipped figure in Thailand and has been popular for most of his reign. However, the king has been frequently in and out of hospital and now has little power or will to affect the current state of the country.

Thailand’s new Prime Minister, coup leader and now retired general, Prayuth Chan-Ocha said his regime would use legal, psychological and technological measures to protect the monarchy against defamation in his first official policy speech as premier. Thailand have already for many years had the draconian lèse majesté law to protect the royal family from criticism. After the military coup in May the number of people prosecuted under this law has risen rapidly and new ways of monitoring internet usage has been implemented to expand the search for deviant activities. This has sparked new attention from the international community, condemning these violations of human rights. Recently the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) expressed serious concern over the prosecution and harsh sentencing of individuals in Thailand under the lèse majesté law. It was stated that such measures are adding to the “larger pattern of increasing restrictions on freedom of expression in Thailand.”

Prosecutions under the lèse majesté law have proved an effective weapon for the conservative royalist and militarist urban elite in their power struggle against the Redshirts. The constant threat of lèse-majesté has ensued a chilling fear around freedom of expression in Thailand after the coup. Debates on public issues have become one-sided and the lack of perspective has resulted in a rise of ultra monarchism, the belief that anything that protects the royals is justifiable. The king stated in a speech 2005 that he is ready for criticism, but he has not made any further comments since his health condition worsened in 2009.

It is difficult to speculate on the future of Thai politics, but perhaps when King Bhumibol Adulyadej eventually passes the militant ultra monarchism will die with him. A significant reason for this is the playboy crown prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, heir to the throne, and hugely unpopular among the Thai people. When the royals are no longer as respected the base for ultra-monarchism might fade, and “defending the royals” can no longer be used as justification for questionable actions. Today, it seems that every time the Red majority prevails, the Yellows have taken to the streets and shut the government down using their influence on Thai institutions. An end to Ultra monarchism could increase the Redshirts chances to influence Thai politics, and maybe this could lead to a better democratic process. If that would bring an end to the chilling political climate in Thailand, only time will tell.

Kristoffer Johansson