Prachatai, CC BY 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons


Since 2014, when a military coup prompted censorship and rewriting of its constitution, Thailand has faced an extended period of civil unrest. 

The nation’s governmental structure includes a constitutional monarch alongside a parliamentary system. The way these structures have manifested has undergone significant alterations in recent years (notably the rule under a new king, Maha Vajiralongkorn, often referred to as Rama X),  and on numerous occasions, has resulted in significant violence. The current protests are largely in response to the social and political conditions that followed the 2014 coup, as well as public interest in the systemic and structural change of the monarchy, particularly the lèse-majesté law connected to the crown. This law prohibits speaking negatively of the crown in public and can carry strict prison sentences. The three main demands of the protests are officially: the resignation of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, the redrafting of the constitution, and the reforming of the Crown. So far, none of these have been met with, and discontent has grown to the point where some protestors are calling for another coup to seize control of the government. 


The Current Situation

The author spoke with Itt Vanich, a recent graduate from Cornell University and a Thai national based in Bangkok, to gain a better understanding of the current circumstances of the protests and politics in the country. Itt helped with valuable information from a range of sources from all across the political spectrum and emphasized his relative neutrality and desire to be objective on the subject. 

On the present state of affairs, he stated that the protests have deescalated significantly in recent weeks. He also informed that the notion of another coup happening is extremely unlikely. The protest leaders encouraged this idea to “reignite people to return to more protests, but the administration already came out to say that it’s not going to happen.” This government being the result of a military coup, he questioned the practicality of another coup: “I mean, its simply not possible, the current (government) is a result of a military coup, how will there be a coup on an administration that’s the result of a coup?”

On being questioned about the crown and the current government, and if they could be categorized as oppressive, he told that the lèse majesté law is the main source of public outrage. He also stated that there have been numerous cases of enforced disappearances, custodial killings and wrongful arrests of those who express dissent. He noted the case of Wanchalearm Satsaksit, an activist who fled Thailand after being accused of breaking the lèse majesté law. Satsaksit went missing in June 2020 in Cambodia, six years after his exile from Thailand. The BBC News notes that he is one of nine people who were recently exiled and then disappeared after criticizing the Thai monarchy and the government. There are also numerous protest leaders who have been arrested, including Parit Chiwarak and Panusaya Sithijirawattanakul


Further Analysis and Criticisms

Itt, while sensitive to the violence committed against these missing activists, noted that these cases need to be looked at on an individual basis. His opinion was that the disappeared people were largely fugitives who had not shown up to their day in court for breaking lèse majesté. He feels that there is a generally high-level of freedom of speech in the country and said that essentially the only thing one cannot do is publicly insult the Monarch King Rama X (he added that private criticism of Rama X is accepted). Itt noted that this is one area where the protests have made some progress against the lèse majesté law, as so many people have been speaking out against Rama X that the police could not possibly arrest everyone. In principal this one exception to freedom of speech may seem clear and easily avoidable; however, the suspicious disappearances and assassinations of prominent critics of the current regime indicate a lack of respect for human rights, under the garb of seemingly lax freedom of speech laws.

Itt was further engaged with the problems of imposing American or Eurocentric norms onto the Thai body politic. He pointed out that the U.S. likes to identify itself as the beacon of freedom of speech, but as mentioned before, even Thailand has granted various freedoms. However, while Thailand may have significant access to freedoms (it notably has some of the most expansive LGBT rights in Asia for example), it is still ranked by Freedom House as being only Partly Free.” Further violence has also occurred within the actual protests. Itt noted the harsh police tactic of using water cannons mixed with tear gas to disperse crowds, as well as some protestors attacking isolated officers. Itt qualified the level of violence with a grim metric by saying there has not been nearly as much in Thailand as there was in the United States during the George Floyd Protests earlier this year. 

Itt, like the protestors, wants there to be reforms to the lèse majesté law. He believes there are genuine concerns over the government and crown that need to be addressed: “The demand for abolishing monarchy is impossible, demand for reform is very hard but possible, I also push for a reform (removal of lèse majesté law) and right now from the protests, the lèse majesté law is much less effective now (because) so many (people) are insulting the king and it’s a mainstream sentiment; it’s not possible for the police to arrest all of them.” He does point out valid criticisms in the protests, however. The main reasons as to why the protests have started to dwindle, Itt says, are the general loss of interest of the protestors over time, the increased presence of more radical and sometimes violent protestors, the obscuring of the protests’ message, and increased public frustration with protests blocking major city functions in Bangkok. Itt also voiced frustration with American social media appropriating the protests and generalizing their message for political means. He claims that a significant portion of protestors are swayed by the idealization of protest through social media, and they may be disingenuous in their activism. He also feels a noticeable geopolitical influence in that it is clear the U.S. has voiced its support for the protests. 



The role of the crown in Thailand is complicated and has a  long and enduring history, spanning centuries. It has an important place in the identity of many Thai people. Itt pointed out that Thailand was the only country in Southeast Asia to not be colonized, largely thanks to the country’s monarchy. Support for the crown is also clearly evident in numerous pro-royalty protests led by organizers referred to as Yellow Shirts, who wear yellow to represent the official colour of the monarchy. This complex and significant role of the crown, however, should be separated from the need to speak out against clear violations of human rights and extrajudicial disappearances. These are internationally recognized forms of oppression and should not be tolerated. Finding a balance between maintaining tradition and creating necessary reform is always an extremely complicated task, and as Thailand faces it, one may hope that a peaceful solution is found.

By Troy Van Buskirk Barter

Troy Van Buskirk Barter is a recent graduate of Occidental College in Los Angeles. He is very passionate about global issues of human rights, social movements, and politics. His experience includes field research done in Buenos Aires interviewing butcher shop owners about how their businesses had been affected by the Paris Climate Agreement, in an effort to better understand the effects of international agreements on micro-level economies.

One thought on “Civil Unrest in Thailand”
  1. Impressive piece, Troy. After four years in Vietnam, I’ve had an interesting perspective of the “country next door.” The two countries are actually so different, but for sure they suffer so much from corruption. After Hong Kong and now Bankok, some hoped there’d be a bit of a push here in Vietnam. Alas, the authoritarian government, which makes a mockery of the word “communism,” has an iron grip. It will take a long time fo things to change here.

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