With tens of thousands of protesters cheering her on, Panusaya Sithijirawattankul stepped on to a stage near Bangkok’s ceremonial Grand Palace and confidently did what most Thais would not dare to do. She spoke out against the country’s monarchy.
- Student-led protests have been growing since mid-July
- Protesters are demanding the Prime Minister resign and for the monarchy to be reformed
- Protest leader Rung says she expected to be arrested
The 21-year-old university student, who is known by her nickname “Rung”, has become one of the faces of Thailand’s growing student-led protest movement.
In front of a big screen projecting her image to the crowd, the third-year sociology student addressed the biggest anti-establishment rally since the 2014 coup which saw military General Prayuth Chan-ocha seize power.
“[We have] the same ideology, the same intention, the same goals: to end the Prayuth regime and to reform the monarchy, isn’t that right?” she said to loud cheers and applause.
Far from being afraid of her country’s strict lese majeste law, which makes it illegal to defame or insult the monarchy, Rung has loudly and proudly declared her desire for the royal family to have less power in politics.
“I decided to speak out because if we never speak about it, the change will never happen,” Rung told the ABC.
Despite this, Rung insists she has not insulted the monarchy, saying: “We don’t want to topple the institution. Our proposal is reform, not revolution.”
A jail term of between three and 15 years is a possibility for the young activists under the lese majeste law.
Several have already been arrested and released on bail for other protest-related charges under different legislation over the past two months, and Rung says her time will come.
“I [will] be definitely arrested one day because the arrest warrant was issued,” she said.
“What I have to do is to plan what I will do before and after being arrested, so that this movement will keep going and not stop if I or other leaders are gone.”
Harry Potter and The Hunger Games become protest symbols
The student-led, anti-monarchy protest movement has been building since July with several rallies per week.
The leaders started with three demands: for parliament to be dissolved, for the constitution to be changed, and for an end to the harassment of opposition activists.
After the King took the throne in 2016, the palace required revisions to a new constitution that gave him greater emergency powers.
He has since taken personal control over some army units and palace assets worth tens of billions of dollars.
“Thai politics has not been developed, it keeps going around in a circle. Coup d’etat, election, coup d’etat, election,” Rung said.
“If we want to have a better life, there must be good politics. So we have to fix the problems.”
In August, the group held a “Harry Potter vs He Who Must Not Be Named”-themed protest with pictures of villain Lord Voldemort as a not-so-subtle reference to being banned from speaking out about Thai King Maha Vajiralongkorn.
The three-finger salute from The Hunger Games has also made its way into demonstrations as a symbol for democracy.
By late August, the subtleties were replaced with unprecedented and very public demands, including curbing the King’s powers over the constitution, politicians, the armed forces, and public funds, and abolishing the lese majeste law.
It was Rung who took the stage at one rally to read out a 10-point manifesto detailing them for the first time.
“The crowd cheered so loudly,” she said.
Within hours, Rung said, she was being followed by plain-clothes police officers.
“They watched me from outside my dorm and sometimes I was followed by cars when I went out,” she said.
“They disappeared for a while, but they came back again a few days ago.”
Older Thais stunned by young protesters’ ‘radical demands’
The young activist said her parents had been scared and worried.
“They said it was fine if my movement was about government [but] asked I not speak about the monarchy,” she said.
“I told them I could not do that because it is the root cause of the problem and if we don’t fix the monarchy, we can’t fix other problems. I must mention it.”
Some older generations are supporting the students’ cause, according to Kanokrat Lertchoosakul, a political science lecturer from Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University.
Others had been “shocked” they had dared to call for a “sacred, untouchable and beloved institution” to be reformed.
“The demands have been the most radical demands in Thai political history,” Dr Lertchoosakul said.
“[Older generations] would not dare to speak out about what we really think. Whether we love or hate anything, we have to keep it inside. This is what we are taught since we were very young.”
Royalists rise up in support of the monarchy
Not everyone agrees with the young protesters.
Thai royalists have expressed their dismay at what the protesters have been saying and have held rallies of their own.
At one of the largest in August, about 1,200 members of the Thai Loyal group waved national flags and held portraits of the King to show their unwavering support for the monarchy.
Prominent politician Warong Dechgitvigrom launched the group because he said he felt the monarchy was under attack.
“The point of our group is to protect the monarchy with knowledge and facts,” Mr Dechgitvigrom told the Reuters news agency.
“The monarchy institution has no part in governing the country. The institution is the moral support that connects the people together.”
Thai Loyal has also set out three demands: No dissolution of parliament, maximum legal action against anyone who seeks to topple the monarchy, and no change to the constitution unless it is done through proper channels.
Everyone waits for the King’s next move
While protesters have braced themselves for arrest under the country’s lese majeste law, Thailand’s Prime Minister, Prayuth Chan-ocha, said the King had requested no prosecutions.
Police have said they are considering charging protest leaders who held a demonstration on September 19, but have not yet done so, nor have they said what those charges could be.
Mr Prayuth has warned Thailand would be “engulfed in flames” if division persisted, but has so far allowed large rallies to go ahead as an expression of free speech.
He added that demands for monarchy reform were not acceptable and now was not the right time to be discussing such issues.
“I hear you have political grievances and that you have issues with the constitution, I respect your opinions,” the Prime Minister said.
“But right now, our country has some very much more immediately painful issues that it must address — that is the economic destruction brought about by COVID-19.”