Young protesters in Thailand say they risk arrest while trying to reform the country’s powerful monarchy

With tens of thousands of protesters cheering her on, Panossaya Sithijirawatankul climbed to a platform near the Grand Ceremonial Palace in Bangkok and confidently did what most Thais had not dared to do. She spoke out against the monarchy in the country.

The 21-year-old university student known by the nickname “Rong” has become one of the faces of the growing student-led protest movement in Thailand.

In front of a large screen projecting her picture to the crowd, the third-year sociology student addressed the largest anti-establishment rally since the 2014 coup that saw military general Prayut Chan-Ocha seize power.

“[We have] The same ideology, the same intention, the same goals: ending the prayer system and reforming the monarchy, isn’t that right? “She said to loud cheers and applause.

Rong says she isn’t trying to overthrow the monarchy, but she believes it must be fixed.(AP: Wasson and Anishkorn)

Far from fearful of her country’s strict law against the defect of the royal self, which makes it illegal to slander or insult the monarchy, Rong loudly and proudly declared her desire for the royal family to have less power in politics.

“I decided to speak up because if we never talk about it, change will never happen,” Runge told ABC.

Despite this, Runge insists that she did not insult the monarchy, saying, “We do not want to bring down the establishment. Our proposal is reform, not revolution.”

Young woman surrounded by Thai police
Rong says Thailand needs to break out of the cycle of coups and elections to be able to move forward.(Reuters: Athit Berawongmitha)

The young activists could be sentenced to between 3 and 15 years in prison under the Royal Self-Defect Act.

Many of them have already been arrested and released on bail on other charges related to protest under various legislation over the past two months, and Rong says her time will come.

“I am [will] He will be permanently arrested one day because the arrest warrant has been issued. “

“What I have to do is plan what I will do before and after my arrest, so that this movement continues and does not stop if I or other leaders leave me.”

Harry Potter and the Hunger Games have become symbols of protest

The student-led anti-monarchy protest movement has escalated since July with many rallies per week.

People sitting in rain coats waving smartphone lights and the Thai flag at night
The student-led protest movement is calling for new elections and reform of the monarchy.(AP: Wasson and Anishkorn)

The leaders began with three demands: to dissolve parliament, amend the constitution, and stop harassment of opposition activists.

After the king assumed the throne in 2016, the palace requested a review of the new constitution that gave him greater emergency powers.

Since then, he has taken personal control of some army units and palace assets worth tens of billions of dollars.

“Thai politics has not developed, it is still revolving in a circle. Coup, election, coup and election,” Rong said.

“If we want to have a better life, there has to be good policies. So we have to solve the problems.”

In August, the group staged a protest titled “Harry Potter against He Who Should Not Be Named” with images of villain Lord Voldemort as inaccurate reference to being prevented from speaking publicly about Thailand’s King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

The three-toed salute from The Hunger Games has also made its way into the demonstrations as a symbol of democracy.

A person in a red hoodie and an anonymous mask greets three fingers.
The three-toed salute from The Hunger Games became a symbol of democracy during the Thai protests.(ABC News)

By late August, the finer details had been replaced by unprecedented and highly public demands, including curbing the king’s powers over the constitution, politicians, the armed forces, and public funds, and the repeal of the Defamation Act.

It was Rong who took the podium at a rally to read a 10-point statement explaining it in detail for the first time.

“The crowd cheered loudly,” she said.

Within hours, Rong said, civilian-dressed police officers followed her.

“They would watch me from outside my house, and sometimes cars would follow me when I went out,” she said.

They were gone for a while, but were back again a few days ago.

Old Thais were shocked by the “extremist demands” of the young protesters

The young activist said her parents were afraid and anxious.

“They said it was fine if my movement was related to the government [but] You asked me not to talk about the monarchy. “

“I told them that I can’t do that because it’s the root cause of the problem and if we don’t fix the monarchy, we can’t fix the other problems. I have to mention that.”

A young Thai woman raises three fingers
Rong says her parents urged her not to demand reform of the monarchy in Thailand.(Reuters: Athit Berawongmitha)

Some of the older generations support the students’ cause, according to political science lecturer from Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University Kanokrat to Rashusakul.

Others were “shocked” because they dared to call for reform of a “sacred and beloved institution that is untouched”.

“The demands were the most radical in Thai political history,” said Dr. Richusakul.

“[Older generations] He wouldn’t dare to talk about what we really think. Whether we love or hate anything, we have to keep it inside. This is what we learned from a young age. “

The royals revolt to support the monarchy

Not everyone agrees with the young protesters.

The Thai royals expressed their dissatisfaction with what the protesters had said and held their own rallies.

In one of the largest in August, some 1,200 Thai loyalty group members waved national flags and carried pictures of the king to show their unwavering support for the monarchy.

A woman wearing a face mask reads: "Long live the king"
Thai monarchs organize counter-protests in support of the constitutional monarchy and the king.(Reuters: Jorge Silva)

Prominent politician Warung Dichgetfigrum launched the group because he said he felt the monarchy was under attack.

“The goal of our group is to protect the monarchy with knowledge and facts,” Dishgatefigrom told Reuters news agency.

“The royal establishment has no role in governing the country. The institution is the moral support that binds people together.”

Thai Loyal also set three demands: not to dissolve Parliament, maximum legal action against anyone seeking to overthrow the monarchy, and not to change the constitution unless this is done through appropriate channels.

Everyone is waiting for the king’s next move

As the protesters prepared to be arrested under the country’s royal blemish law, Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha said the king had not requested any prosecutions.

Thailand's King Maha Vajiralongkorn walks in traditional white attire while parading.
The Prime Minister of Thailand said that he has not received any requests from the king (the front) for prosecutions against defamation in the royal self.(Reuters: Athit Perawognmetha)

Police said they are considering indicting the protest leaders who organized the demonstration on September 19, but they have not yet done so and have not explained what the charges were.

Prayut warned that Thailand would be “mired in flames” if the division continues, but has so far allowed large demonstrations to proceed as an expression of freedom of expression.

He added that the demands to reform the monarchy are unacceptable and that the time is not right now to discuss such issues.

“I heard that you have political grievances and that you have problems with the constitution, and I respect your views,” the prime minister said.

“But at the moment, our country has some more painful issues that it must address – and that is the economic devastation wrought by COVID-19.”

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