Young Thai activists adapt, get creative in protesting for monarchy reform

Subel Rai Bhandari
Young Thai activists adapt, get creative in protesting for monarchy reform A red ribbon, which symbolizes support to abolish the Thai royal defamation law, is tied to a hand-strap in a commuter train in Bangkok, Feb. 26, 2022. [Courtesy Orange Cat]
Courtesy Orange Cat

On a warm evening late last month, a young pro-democracy protester offered passengers on a packed Bangkok Skytrain the choice between two types of ribbons – one red and one blue.

“If you think Article 112 should be abolished, please tie the red ribbon to the handrails or seats. If you think there is no need for change, please tie the blue ribbon,” Tawan Tantawan said, distributing ribbons from fistfuls she clutched in both hands.

She was talking about an article of the Thai Criminal Code that makes it illegal to defame, insult or threaten any member of the monarchy.  Penalties for Lese-Majeste convictions can carry up to 15 years in prison. 

The commuters tied 191 red ribbons – no one asked for blue – on two trains that day, Tawan said, adding that police detained her for several hours that evening and fined her 5,000 baht (U.S. $151) for resisting officers. Although Tawan selected blue ribbons for her survey, yellow is the color used by supporters of the royals and red is the color used by pro-democracy groups.

Tawan, 20, is among young Thai pro-democracy activists who have been staging solo protests in defiance of the anti-royal defamation law since mass youth-led protests began to die down in 2021 after authorities rounded up and jailed prominent activists under Lese-Majeste and other charges.

Tawan and other young Thais have been adapting to change by coming up with creative and colorful ways to air their grievances in the public space about 112, such as through performance-art pieces in which the soloist splashes red paint all over his body.

“Section 112 stops people from commenting on the royals. But if this law is abolished, then maybe we can discuss the problems of the monarchy, and then there might be some changes,” Tawan told BenarNews last week. 

The mass protests, which began in July 2020, called for reforms to the monarchy and for Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha, the former army chief and 2014 military coup leader, to step down.

At their peak, the protests drew thousands before they began to peter off as leaders were arrested and held in pre-trial detention without bail for months. More recently, thousands of protesters turned out in Bangkok in mid-November, days after the Constitutional Court ruled that previous protests were efforts to overthrow the royal family.

“By insisting that it’s the people, not the king, who are the sovereign power of the state, the young protesters are laying down a new ground rule,” said Bencharat Sae Chua, a lecturer at Mahidol University in Bangkok. 

In the absence of large demonstrations, young people are organizing other protests including small symbolic rebellious acts, arts performances at public spaces, discussion on political change in the form of seminars, and other events, she said. 

“I think the movement tactic has changed to embrace the way the state is cracking down. The youth are now being more creative.”

But most of all, she said, “the mindset … political landscape has changed.”

At least 173 people, including 13 juveniles, have been charged with Lese-Majeste since November 2020, when Prayuth announced that police would enforce all laws against the pro-democracy protesters, according to Thai Lawyers for Human Rights (TLHR), a legal aid group whose attorneys represent many of the jailed protest leaders.

In all, the lawyers group has documented 3,491 legal charges brought against 1,787 people since the protests began in July 2020, when young Thais began speaking out publicly en masse against the monarchy, until the end of last month.

“In the first two months of this year, the number of people threatened has soared to more than 83, with a majority of them related to royal visits and online opinions of the monarchy,” TLHR said.

On March 4, a satirist became the first person to be sentenced on Lese-Majeste charges linked to the pro-democracy protests, in which he pasted a sticker on a portrait of the king during a rally in September 2020. Narin Kulpongsathorn, 33, is out on bail as he appeals his conviction.

Vitthaya “Ramil” Klangnil dumps red paint over his head during a protest in front of Chiang Mai University, May 2, 2021 [Artn’t Facebook page]

More charges

Over the past weekend, Thai police arrested Tawan again while she was broadcasting on Facebook during the procession of a royal motorcade, and charged her with royal defamation and sedition. One of the charge-sheets states that she allegedly uttered an offending phrase during the broadcast, in which she asked “between the people and the monarch, who is more important?”

Her supporters tied red ribbons at the entrance of the police station where she was held for two nights.

Another solo activist, Vitthaya “Ramil” Klangnil, a philosophy student at Chiang Mai University, protests through political performance art, for which he has been charged in seven separate cases in three Thai cities since 2021.

“We have seen many big political changes, but the Thai artist circles have been hushed as if nothing has happened,” said Ramil, a co-founder of “Artn’t,” an art group.  

In one installation, Ramil and a colleague draped a red and white flag with a transparent center on top of a mannequin wrapped in plastic. People were invited to write messages, some of which violated Article 112, Thai police said.

Because the artists’ piece resembled a Thai flag without the blue stripe in the center representing the monarchy, police alleged that protesters wished the institution would not exist in the country. 

In another event, Ramil poured red paint over himself and climbed onto his university’s sign, which featured a photo of Thailand’s king. Police said this was disrespectful.

Appearing at a Chiang Mai police station to hear charges against him, Ramil dressed as “Luffy,” a Japanese Manga character, and staged a short performance called the “Second Gear.”

“To make a political movement with art, it helps to expand the space to the people in many fields,” he told BenarNews. 

“There is no clear picture where the youth political movement in Thailand for democracy is heading. But I’m sure that all sectors in the society will be dragged forward together, not only those related to the political groups.”

Tawan Tantawan, 20, discusses her pro-democracy protests in Bangkok, March 4, 2022. [Subel Rai Bhandari/BenarNews]

Tawan said she was inspired to join the protest movement after watching pro-democracy activists Arnon Nampa, Parit “Penguin” Chiwarak, and Panupong “Mike” Jadnok speak at a political rally in August 2020. 

“But later the police arrested them. That made me angry,” Tawan said. “It made me realize that I cannot sit in my home and expect things to change. I cannot just ignore [it].

“The main problem is the monarchy is above the law in Thailand. They have more power than us, the people.”

Upon his Feb. 28 release on bail after being jailed for more than 200 days on Lese-Majeste charges, Arnon, a human rights lawyer and pro-democracy leader, said that a new generation of Thais would carry on fighting for “human rights, liberty and equality.”

“Seeds we harvested two years ago – they are waiting to bloom. There is nothing that can destroy this, the new generation,” Arnon said.

For her first solo protest project, Tawan organized “a survey of the people” at a shopping mall on Feb. 8, asking if they thought the royal motorcades caused problems for the public.

“Polling is direct action and reflects what people want,” she said. “I can use it as a form of protest.”

Tawan said she got the idea after a group of police officers visited her sister ahead of a royal visit, trying “intimidation tactics.” More than 100 people participated in the snap, one-hour survey, she said.

When Tawan went to a nearby palace to submit the result, “the police snatched our survey and destroyed it,” she said. “We just wanted to show… the motorcade creates discomfort for the public.” 

Inspired by Tawan’s poll, students in northeastern Ubon Ratchathani province conducted a similar survey a week later. They asked people to vote on the royal motorcade and the monarchy’s place in Thailand.

Tawan said that despite a dearth of large-scale rallies in recent months, social media has provided “a good platform.”

“Maybe because it’s easier than going down to the streets,” she said. “But I hope the people will come down to the street – both streets and social media have to join forces together, then the movement will be very powerful.”

Kunnawut Boonreak in Chiang Mai, Thailand, and Nontarat Phaicharoen in Bangkok contributed to this report.


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