Political turmoil isn’t new in Thailand, which has been rocked by coups and periods of unrest for decades. But a new generation of Thais has taken to the streets in recent months against a system they see as dictatorial and out-of-place in the 21st century, with some questioning the very foundation of what it means to be Thai.
“When I was eight, I saw a coup d’état. When I was 12 years old, I saw the most violent crackdown in recent history. When I was 16, I saw another coup d’état,” said 22-year-old Parit Chiwarak. “As a whole generation, this really made us question the system we are living in.”
University students say their country’s top-down structure is skewed to protect the royalist-military elite and promote a culture of unquestioning submission by citizens. The protesters, led in part by a group called Free People, have articulated three core demands: that parliament be dissolved, which would lead to elections; that a new constitution be drafted with an aim to ultimately dislodge the military from politics; and that critics of the government no longer be harassed.
Their immediate target is Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, who led the latest coup in 2014 and ran a junta government for nearly five years. He became the country’s elected premier last year after a vote that was criticized by the opposition as favoring his military-backed party. The polls were marred by allegations of irregular counting and coercion.
Some protesters are going even further. They are hoping to fundamentally alter the political landscape and redefine the concept of “Thai-ness” that counts reverence for the monarchy as fundamental to Thai identity, analysts said. In interviews and recent speeches at rallies, several activists have explicitly called for changes that would curb the palace’s power and decriminalize perceived insults to the royal family.