On Nov. 1, Thailand’s King Vajiralongkorn took the unprecedented step of mingling with monarchist supporters in the center of Bangkok. The king took the occasion to assure TV reporters that “Thailand is the land of compromise.”
He is clearly feeling the heat. For weeks now, hundreds of thousands of young people have been protesting around the country, demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, the ex-general who topped our elected government in a 2014 military coup. But they’ve also been challenging the role of the monarchy, a daring move in a country where criticizing the king can bring harsh punishment.
Why are they so angry? What is driving them into the streets — and keeping them there for so long?
It’s simple. Thailand has long been controlled by a small network of high-ranking military officers, ultra-wealthy tycoons and traditional elites, all strongly supported by the royal family. Together, they control enormous amounts of wealth and power. Whenever democratic movements have threatened this entrenched establishment’s privileges, it has reacted with violence and oppression.
Many Thais have died in the struggle for democracy. In 2010, several dozen people were killed in pro-democracy protests. Just within the past few years, Thai dissidents living overseas have been killed or disappeared. None of those in power have ever been held accountable.
So it is entirely understandable that angry young people are taking matters to the streets. Among their demands: a new, democratic constitution and reform of the monarchy.
The future we want is simple. We want a functioning parliamentary system where power truly belongs to the people. A balance between the three separate branches of power would allow an effective government and genuine rule of law.
We want an economy that rewards hard work and creativity. The gap between the rich and the poor must be reduced by abolishing laws that were created to protect monopolies, by providing greater access to capital for the poor, and by building better public services that accommodate everyone.
We want to build a better welfare system, a safety net that allows people to try and fail. This is particularly important in a fast-moving world, and Thais have every right to expect this. We have enough financial resources for a better welfare system without pushing fiscal constraints to the limit if our budget is managed without corruption.
We want to build new industries that respect the limits of nature. More investment in green technologies, waste management and renewable energy would provide more meaningful jobs to the economy already in recession and with high youth unemployment. It is an opportunity of a lifetime to steer our investment toward building green infrastructure. Our children deserve fresh air to breathe and clean water to drink.
We want to see the end of the authoritarian culture in schools and workplaces that supports the continuation of the current repressive regime. We want to forge a new culture — a culture based on trust and respect for human rights and dignity, a culture where diversity is embraced and empowered, a culture that not only solidifies existing roots, but also adapts to global changes.
We want to see an active Thailand in the global arena. We want our country to play a more active role in solving transnational issues such as protection of the Mekong River, the Rohingya refugee crisis and devastating air pollution through constructive international cooperation. We want Thailand to become a beacon of hope for human rights and democracy in Southeast Asia.
We want to reform the monarchy to make the institution more transparent and more democratic. Today, trust between the monarchy and the people is at its lowest in many years. A monarchy that would stay above politics and obey constitutional limits will create harmony among the institution, the people and democracy.
These aspirations for the future of Thailand may seem so simple. But they are in fact very ambitious.
Reforming the monarchy had been unthinkable for Thai people until just three months ago, when student leaders broke this taboo. It is by far the biggest challenge for the elites and it will take time before actual reform can be achieved. To solve this crisis through peaceful means, the resignation of Prayuth must be the first step. Once the prime minister, who represents the authoritarian regime, has stepped aside, dialogue on reforms will become possible.
Thailand would have never come this far without the courage of the young people who lead the movement. I stand in solidarity with activists such as Anon Nampa, Panussaya Sitthijirawatthanakul, and Ekachai Hongkangwan for the sacrifices they made. They have been charged and jailed only because they represent the call of their generation, the call for change.
I urge everyone not to let their sacrifices be in vain. They have stood up and fought for their future, our future. They are the voices of the generation. Only by listening to them can Thailand achieve its full potential and become a country we want to see.
Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, a Thai businessman, served as the leader of the opposition Future Forward Party until its dissolution earlier this year.