EFEBy Ramon Abarca Bangkok

Thammasat University in Bangkok, Aug. 10, 2020. During a protest, a 22-year-old student reads a 10-point manifesto calling for the reform of the monarchy and sets off a time bomb that killed off the biggest taboo in Thailand.

That concentration on campus was part of the wave of increasingly massive demonstrations that swept the country and in which students called for democratic reforms and an end to the vicious cycle of the military government.

The dissolution by the courts of the reformist Future Forward party, led by the charismatic young politician Thanathorn Juangroonruangkit, lit the fuse.

But that night in August went further. The students dared to debate in public something that until then seemed unthinkable. The manifesto called for the reform of the monarchy to end its excessive power in politics, greater transparency in its finances and the elimination of the crime of lèse majesté.

"The student protests broke a glass ceiling, especially that of August 10, and have managed to attract more and more people from different social backgrounds to discuss the royal institution both in the streets and on social media," Chulalongkorn University Political Science Assistant Professor Pitch Pongsawat said.

Many Thais lost their fear of speaking in public about the powerful monarch, despite the fact that the king has been seen as untouchable in Thailand and any criticism has always been taboo and illegal.

Thailand punishes defamation, insults or threats toward the monarchy with penalties of up to 15 years in prison through the draconian Article 112 of the penal code.

The seed had been germinating for months. King Maha Vajiralongkorn lacks the charisma and respect enjoyed by his father, the revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej. His long spells in Germany, especially during the worst moment of the pandemic in 2020, the lack of transparency in his finances and his extravagant lifestyle, had drawn much criticism.

Since then, debate has broken out on social networks but also on the streets, where Thais for the first time have spoken of the monarch and his role without restrictions.

An example of this is what began to happen in cinemas. In Thailand, before a film begins, the royal anthem is played and everyone stands up. In the wake of last year's protests, only a few continue to do so.

"What has happened in the last year has been a success. Not only did we manage to encourage people to participate more in the protests, but we also managed to promote democratic ideas, making people dare to challenge the government and criticize any issue of society," said Juthathip Sirikan, leader of the Free Youth movement, one of the student groups behind the protests.

However, the student leader is less optimistic about the real changes within the monarchical institution and she recalls how the government "uses increasingly harsh laws to suppress protests" and some of these young people have ended up in prison.

The main leaders of the protests, most of them young university students who dared to speak publicly about reform of the monarchy, have been imprisoned and charged with lèse majesté, for which they could spend years in jail.

Since last year, more than 700 protesters have been charged with crimes ranging from rioting to sedition, and more than 100 are charged with lèse majesté, according to Thai Lawyers for Human Rights.

Among them is Panusaya "Rung" Sithijirawattanakul, the student who read the controversial manifesto on Aug. 10 and who became one of the 100 most inspiring and influential women in the world of 2020, according to the BBC.

The student movement became divided and directionless by the fierceness with which the authorities responded, which, adding to the restrictions due to the pandemic, was deflating it.

Despite this, for weeks a new wave of smaller demonstrations have reappeared in the streets of Bangkok where they’ve demanded the resignation of Prime Minister Gen. Prayut Chan-ocha for his poor management of the Covid-19 pandemic, wreaking havoc in the country.

"Although the number of people who come out to protest is lower, this does not mean that there is no discomfort with the Prayut government and the political system," Assistant Professor Pitch said.

He added that taking into account the growing number of Twitter hashtags and comments, it can be said that the pulse against the "establishment" continues to strengthen, since ultimately "most of us live in that virtual world." EFE

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