Last Thursday, a transgender protester wearing the traditional garb of a queen strutted down a red carpet in a street of central Bangkok. Another protester dressed like a court page — with sneakers — followed her, holding a red umbrella aloft in the style of a royal parasol. A crowd sat on the ground, prostrate, eyes cast down, as is required in the presence of royalty.
For centuries, the kings and queens of Thailand have walked under parasols that are color-coded astrologically. Every planet is associated with both a color and a day of the week, and Thai royals have parasols in the color that represents the day on which they were born.
This symbolism is just one of the means by which the monarchy presents its legitimacy as celestial, its mandate as divine. The state promotes various stories and narratives celebrating Thailand’s monarchs as demigods or Buddhas-to-be.
But now all that symbolism is being co-opted by the people. For several months, protesters have held marches and rallies calling for a new Constitution; for Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, the former general who seized power in a coup in 2014, to step down; and, more radically, for the monarchy to “truly,” as protesters say, come under the law.
King Maha Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun, who ascended to the throne in late 2016, inaugurated his reign by asking the junta to amend its new Constitution, partly so that he could rule from Germany. In 2018 he claimed direct control over the assets of the Crown Property Bureau — the royal family’s fortune, worth $40 billion then. He has reinstated a special status for royal concubines, a defining feature of the absolutist kings of old.
The protests can be tongue-in-cheek, but they are earnest, and they are dangerously daring given the severity of punishments for any criticism of the monarchy. They are also both cosmopolitan and exquisitely Thai. The symbols they borrow from the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong in 2015 and last year — umbrellas, black T-shirts, flashlights in the night — have taken on a uniquely radical significance.
Light, which is associated with the awakening of the Buddha, has long been a symbol of the monarchy in Thailand. In official images auras glow around kings, not only in paintings but also in photographs. The daily television program dedicated to royalty-related news opens with a bonanza of light bursts and flashes.
Nearly every night these days, thousands of protesters hold their mobile phones up high, beaming flashlights. The Thai royal family may claim that political legitimacy comes from the heavens, but now the protesters do as well.
Their black T-shirts also are a challenge to the monarchy. An activist I spoke to last week said they evoke a solar eclipse — a phenomenon traditionally thought to be a bad omen for kings.
And then there’s the plaque.
One night in April 2017, a small, round brass plaque commemorating the end of absolute monarchy in 1932 disappeared from the paving of the Royal Plaza. Another one appeared in its place that exhorted citizens to worship the monarchs. I found red wax drippings at the site, evidence that red candles — a modern substitute for the sacrificial blood of yore — had been used in a religious ritual.
Journalists trying to investigate what had happened were intimidated by police officers; talk of the switcharoo immediately was taboo.
The 1932 plaque itself had been a pointed response to another marker of power: Thailand’s first constitutional government had installed it as a counterpoint to the log of Javanese cassia wood that the first king in the Chakri dynasty had ordered put on display to announce the advent of a new era.
The sacred log was implanted in the royal grounds on April 21, 1782, at precisely 6:54 a.m. At that moment, the sun was in Aries and Mars in Taurus. The first alignment was an augur of powerful kings and a long-lasting dynasty, the second of a bold and influential army.
Some astrologers look upon the 1932 plaque as a threat to the order of things as they had been. They have told me that the celestial alignment at the moment it was installed favored popular sovereignty over the monarchy.
And when that plaque was replaced in 2017, some whispered that the move signaled another correction, a return to pre-constitutional, absolutist times. King Maha is the 10th monarch of the Chakri dynasty.
The protesters today know very well this language of power and how to borrow its symbolism.
Nine is an auspicious number in much of Southeast Asia, representing the nine planets and planetary deities in traditional Hindu-Buddhist cosmology. One day in late September — the ninth month — nine protest leaders knelt on the royal parade grounds outside the Grand Palace in Bangkok. While one, wearing the white robes of a court astrologer, chanted prayers, the others pressed yet another plaque into a block of fresh cement in the ground.
Also round and made of brass, the plaque featured the three-finger salute from “The Hunger Games” movies and text that read: “This country belongs to the people. It is not the king’s property as they have deceptively told us.”
The plaque disappeared that night. But numerous replicas soon popped up elsewhere, beyond the state’s immediate reach, as internet memes and on stickers, magnets, tattoos, T-shirts and barbecue grills.
For centuries official propaganda has portrayed the mandate of Thailand’s kings as divine. Now the protesters are appropriating that symbolism to crown themselves the country’s rightful sovereigns.
Edoardo Siani is a cultural anthropologist of Thailand and an assistant professor at Ca’ Foscari University of Venice.