Thailand’s parliamentary elections in May were expected to offer a rebuke to the ruling government, but instead they delivered an outright repudiation. Over 70 parties competed in this historic election in which over 75 percent of eligible voters went to the polls. They expressed their exasperation with the current government of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, whose party obtained a meager seven percent of votes cast. By contrast, well over half the votes in this country of 71 million people went to two opposition parties: Move Forward, the new incarnation of the Future Forward party helmed by the young leader Pita Limjaroenrat, and Pheu Thai, the populist party associated with former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
Surprising everyone, Move Forward won the most seats despite expectations that Pheu Thai would win by a landslide. Move Forward’s success stemmed in large part from its forthright criticism of the role of the military and the monarchy in Thai politics. Its leaders promised voters that they would not form a coalition government with any military-backed party and that they would initiate reforms of Article 112, the lèse majesté provision that criminalizes any critique of the monarchy. After a military coup in 2014 and the increased implementation of laws that silence dissent, such as Article 112, many Thais have come to see lèse majesté and its restrictions as emblematic of the conservative monarchical establishment that has dominated the country for decades. Although there is little chance that lèse majesté laws will be altogether abolished any time soon, having a discussion about reforming them in parliament would represent a tremendous change.
But the promises that catapulted Move Forward ahead of its competitors may prove impossible for it to keep. The math is against the party. In 2017, Prayut, a former general, and his unelected military junta put in place a temporary constitutional provision that allowed them to appoint all 250 members of the Senate, Thailand’s upper house. Together with the 500 recently elected members of parliament, these appointed senators will name Thailand’s prime minister. Even though Move Forward won 151 seats in May’s election and Pheu Thai took 141, their combined votes fall short of the 376 votes needed to name Thailand’s next prime minister. Move Forward has 60 days to form a coalition with other parties and gather enough votes to elect its leader, Pita, as prime minister. If its coalition is unable to reach the 376-vote threshold, it may be forced to work with one of the military-backed parties. The price of the support of such a party will likely be the burial of any discussion of reform to lèse majesté laws.
The ground, however, has fundamentally shifted. Should Move Forward fail, it should come as only cold comfort to Thailand’s monarchy and the military. The elections are confirmation of real impatience in Thai society with the prevailing order, a disquiet that the conservative establishment ignores at its peril.
IN THE NAME OF THE KING
Over the past two decades, Thai politics have been roiled by the struggle between the conservative military-monarchical establishment, known as the Yellow Shirts because yellow signaled allegiance to the king, and the supporters of the populist businessman and politician Thaksin, formerly known as the Red Shirts and now as the Pheu Thai party. The agitations of the Red Shirts spurred the military to stage coups in 2006 and 2014 ostensibly to ensure an orderly transition from the reign of King Bhumibol to that of his son, Vajiralongkorn. That transition, which occurred in 2016 when the king passed away, is now over. Many new voters who grew up during the tumultuous 2000s and many older voters frustrated with the static invariability of Thai politics cast their ballots in May for orange: the blend of yellow and red adopted by Move Forward in its campaign.
Dissatisfaction with the role of the monarchy in Thai life may have provided the subtext to the recent election, but it could not be discussed during the campaign. All parties had to skirt around the issue of monarchical reform. Criticizing the monarchy is considered an act of treason in Thailand. Moreover, the country’s election commission prohibited parties and candidates from mentioning the monarchy under the threat of their dissolution and prosecution. But supporters of both Pheu Thai and Move Forward pushed their leaders to make their stances on monarchical reform clear. The opposition parties carefully signaled their willingness to amend lèse majesté laws, treading a fine line between addressing the need for reform and avoiding actual discussion of the monarchy. Move Forward, however, was more consistent in that position. Unlike Pheu Thai, Move Forward explicitly refused throughout its campaign to form a coalition with a pro-monarchy, military-backed party. Moreover, when Pheu Thai was in power between 2011 and 2014, it did nothing to reform laws that prohibited critical discussion of the monarchy, giving voters the impression that it would be less likely than Move Forward to seek change. The elections have vindicated Move Forward’s forthrightness, confirming that citizens want a national conversation about the monarchy.
That the law prohibiting any critical discussion of the monarchy was the pivotal issue in the election is no surprise. Many opponents of the current government headed by Prayut, the former general who came to power after a military coup in 2014, have for years hoped to desacralize the king and relax lèse majesté laws. The military embraced its role as protector of the monarchy during the Cold War era when U.S. funding bolstered the alliance between the military and the monarchy as conservative bulwarks against the spread of communism. No longer threatened by the specter of communism, this authoritarian partnership has found a new foe domestically among those who press for political change.
In 2020, activists dared to broach the topic of the king and his political role in Thailand when the human rights lawyer Anon Nampha called for the monarchy’s power to be curbed. At a rally days later, Thammasat University student Panusaya Sithijirawattanakul read aloud a ten-point manifesto calling for specific reforms to the monarchy. These activists unleashed a torrent of pent-up anger and dissent that hitherto had not been publicly articulated. The protests that subsequently swept through the cities questioned the narrow definition of political and social inclusion in the country; the mostly young demonstrators objected to the king’s intervention in politics and other royal prerogatives, human rights abuses and the suppression of free speech, gender and sexual binaries imposed in the education system, and the dissolution of the Future Forward Party, among other issues. The critiques targeted both cultural norms and the political structures of the kingdom, which the ruling conservatives sought to preserve.
As a result, protesters found themselves accused of royal defamation. Since late 2020, at least 230 people have been prosecuted for lèse majesté. Some defendants have received cumulative sentences exceeding 100 years for participating in activities or speech acts deemed defamatory of the monarchy. Those let out on bail, often after lengthy pretrial detentions, are now no longer allowed to participate in demonstrations, travel abroad without a court’s permission, or engage in activities that might in any way be construed as affecting the monarchy. In this way, the government has silenced dissent through the enforcement of these restrictive laws; through community policing by self-appointed “good” citizens who inform on their friends, colleagues, family members, and neighbors; and through the inevitable self-censorship inspired by this repressive climate. Anyone can accuse somebody else of lèse majesté. A new government could help free the hundreds of dissenters in jail or on bail awaiting trial by easing the harsh implementation of law that has become the hallmark of Prayut’s near decade-long rule.
At a broader level, the protests three years ago galvanized a new generation of Thai voters. Five million Thais cast ballots in this May’s election for the first time. Many of them participated in or followed the demonstrations back in 2020 and 2021 on social media, where Move Forward has now cultivated an impressive presence. In addition to the usual door-to-door canvassing and traditional media advertisements, Move Forward successfully used social media platforms to appeal to Thais, who spend on average nearly half their waking hours in front of a screen. Politics, for many young people, is a form of self-fashioning—a curation of the self through social media where many Thais build a meaningful sense of political community and affiliation.
OPEN THE DOOR
Move Forward’s success in the election is a measure of the groundswell of impatience with the prevailing order. But thanks to the intricacies of the electoral system devised by the military, the verdict of the polls cannot easily be translated into change. Few of the appointed senators will back a candidate from Move Forward or Pheu Thai. To form a government, Move Forward might have to compromise on its campaign pledges and stitch together a coalition with a military-backed party; if it does so, it will in effect be choosing power while forfeiting the chance to discuss and potentially reform Article 112.
Such a course of action may disappoint many of Move Forward’s recent supporters. But in the long run, it offers no outlet to the pressure that is building against Thailand’s military and King Vajiralongkorn, who has not taken a public stance on the election. Although many governing institutions in Thailand, from the bureaucracy to the judiciary, are loyal to the monarchy, none is more steadfast an ally than the army. It protects the monarchy by enforcing the king’s will, and it depends on the king’s imprimatur to legitimate its coups, such as those in 2006 and 2014. Its tendency to intervene in Thai politics raises the prospect of a volatile period ahead.
If Move Forward is unable to build a ruling coalition, other major parties could form a government in its stead, a development that would likely trigger protests, which the military could distort into a pretext to stage a coup. If Move Forward’s coalition tries to reform Article 112, the Election Commission could dissolve the party and its partners, which would also catalyze popular dissent, and the military could stage a coup. If a coalition government fails to broach discussion of Article 112, Thais may stage peaceful protests, which could then invite the military to stage a coup. As the journalist Pravit Rojanaphruk has noted in Khaosod English, Thailand has averaged one coup every seven years since 1932, when a coup overthrew the absolute monarchy and established a constitutional monarchy: nine years have passed since the last one, so a coup is now overdue.
This distressing pattern persists in Thai politics: when events or protests threaten the power of the military-monarchical status quo, the military uses the disruption as an excuse to stage a coup, crack down on dissent, and eventually hold elections for a new government, which rules until its power is threatened anew. What rationale allows the military’s continued stranglehold on democracy? The answer, in short, is the fear that democratic processes will lead to a decrease in the status and power of both the monarchy and the military, institutions that reinforce each other. King Vajiralongkorn, the various military-backed parties, and Prayut have an opportunity to accept the will of the majority of Thai citizens and open the door for reform. But this seems unlikely. Until Thais can hold a public conversation about how power operates behind the scenes in their country, it will be difficult for reform to take root.
Tamara Loos is Professor of History and Southeast Asian Studies at Cornell University and the author of Bones Around My Neck: The Life and Exile of a Prince Provocateur.