Thai protesters gathering in front of the police headquarters in Bangkok. November 18, 2020. Photo: Adirach Toumlamoon /

The Thailand uprising: rubber ducks against royalty

  • December 17, 2020

People & Protest

Widespread protests against an undemocratic coup government and a contemptible king have opened a new front in Thailand’s struggle for a free society.

In November, photos of Thai protesters using giant rubber ducks to shield themselves from the chemical-laced water cannons of riot police exploded on news and social media. These bizarre and spectacular images rivaled the best protester street theater around the globe and received appropriate internet applause. Yet the Thai uprising featuring the rubber ducks — some have even begun calling it “the rubber duck revolution” — remains obscure to many outside Southeast Asia.

The current wave of Thai protests began in February 2020 against the government of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha, who has ruled since 2014, when Prayuth, then a top army general, seized power in a military coup. The coup government named itself the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) and attempted to put an end to years of protest and political unrest. It immediately cracked down on resistance with draconian measures including banning public gatherings, seizing control of media, censoring the internet and arresting political opponents and critics.

The repression initially succeeded in dispersing the protests, and the NCPO then implemented reforms and a new constitution in order to codify the military’s control in preparation for new elections. When elections finally took place in 2019, a convoluted process marred by widespread irregularities ended with Prayuth being selected as prime minister. Now the protests are back, with renewed purpose and potential.

Some protesters are veterans of previous pro-democracy movements, but many are young political newcomers. In many ways the current demonstrations fit the mold of the worldwide mass uprisings of 2019 and 2020, but this most recent wave of Thai protests is also part of almost two decades of political upheaval, contested elections, civil revolutions and military coups, which the international left would do well to pay attention to.

“If We Burn, You Burn with Us”

The 2020 uprising began in response to the Thai Constitutional Court dissolving a progressive political party that had been founded in 2018 to challenge Prayuth’s government. Protests died down soon after due to COVID-19, but emerged again several months later and have only escalated since. Demonstrators initially called for the dissolution of parliament and a new democratic constitution, but quickly expanded their list of demands, including education reform and LGBTQ rights. Most remarkably, the movement has become explicitly critical of the king and called for deep reforms or abolition of the monarchy — something that was long considered out of bounds in Thailand, even for protesters.

Prayuth’s 2014 coup had attempted to slam the door on years of previous political turmoil. In response to Orwellian surveillance and repression by the NCPO, the pro-democracy movement made use of shared references from popular fiction, initially displaying copies of the book 1984 in public to mark resistance to the coup and later incorporating the three-finger rebel salute from The Hunger Games. The dystopian series remains a symbol of the movement until today: a recent protest was branded with a line from the books — “if we burn, you burn with us.”

The rubber duck incident, which has resulted in the rubber duck becoming a sort of movement mascot with some protesters now showing up in yellow duck costumes and apparel, only added to the already creative and playful-yet-serious and resolute character of the pro-democracy movement.

In one view, the Thai uprising looks markedly similar to what Asef Bayat has called “the new global revolution,” or a “revolution without revolutionaries,” much like the so-called Arab Spring uprisings of 2011 and so many revolts since. It is highly decentralized, urban, unarmed, youth-centered, experimental and agile. But at the same time it does not put forward a revolutionary program or ideology, rather concerning itself with issues of political accountability, constitutional rights and democracy. And, like the Egyptian uprising, previous uprisings by Thai protesters in recent decades have been successful in overthrowing the government, only to see elections lead to another coup.

However, this wave of protests waded into uncharted territory when it began openly criticizing the king and called for redistribution of his royal fortune, which is estimated to be over $40 billion, making him the wealthiest monarch in the world. In the face of harsh lèse mejesté laws which can land a person many years in prison simply for saying anything bad about the royal family, a crowd of protesters recently stood in public chanting “the king is a lizard” — a deep cut in Thai language, essentially conveying a combination of “stupid” and “selfish.” A number of protesters have now been charged under the royal defamation laws, but the escalation only appears to sharpen the contradiction between the population and the government.

Criticizing the king at all was considered unimaginable in Thai politics only a few years ago, and the monarchy continues to command a great deal of respect among many sectors of society. There was even a lull in protests in early December in respect for the national birthday celebrations of the former king, which turned out thousands of royalists. Devotion to the monarchy runs deep, which makes the recent uprising all the more groundbreaking. By targeting the king, the current uprising is opening a new and potentially revolutionary front in Thai politics.

A Brief History of Kings and Conflict

Thailand is one of exceptionally few nations in the world that was never colonized nor a colonizer. In modern times, it has suffered from international conflicts in the region, for example WWII and the French and US wars in Vietnam, but for the most part managed to avoid direct participation. Domestically, however, Thailand has a turbulent political history. Since the end of the monarchy’s direct rule and the institution of a constitutional monarchy in 1932, the country has experienced at least a dozen successful military coups, and several more failed attempts. But remarkably, the king remained outside and above all of these transitions, typically declaring his neutrality, with competing political factions all swearing loyalty to the monarchy.

In the past two decades, two opposing social movement blocs, one populist and one elitist, have been fighting over the meaning of Thai democracy. From 2001 until the 2014 coup, all free elections have been won by the populist Thaksin Shinawatra — a billionaire tech mogul who committed to reducing rural poverty and instituted universal healthcare — or those viewed as his proxies, including his sister, Yingluck. Each of these governments was overthrown by a military coup. Thaksin and Yingluck now live in self-imposed exile in Dubai and London, respectively, to avoid corruption charges, which they claim are politically-motivated.

Thaksin’s supporters, who came to be known as “red shirts,” were mainly composed of rural farmers, workers and poor people, and mobilized powerful protest movements to counter the coups and defend their candidates. In 2010, thousands of red shirts occupied a central area of Bangkok for weeks, eventually burning down the Thai stock exchange and Central World, one of the largest shopping malls on the planet, in response to police attacking the encampment.

Beyond their capacity to mobilize massive protests, the red shirts represented the clear majority in electoral terms, and their side has reliably won every legitimate election since the turn of the millennium. Opponents claimed that Thaksin funded and directed the red shirt movement from abroad, meanwhile deriding them using typical elitist arguments, suggesting that the rural poor are uneducated, ignorant and unfit for democratic voice.

Thaksin’s and Yingluck’s governments and their red shirt supporters faced an opposing movement, for a while calling themselves “yellow shirts” (yellow is the color of the king), composed of urban professionals and workers who accused Thaksin of buying his way into office, deceiving his supporters and abusing power. Though they were the minority in national electoral terms, the yellow shirts represented a majority in Bangkok — the center of government and commerce — and had the support of the military and police. Their actions included the 2008 occupation of both of Bangkok’s international airports in a protest against the government that was elected following Thaksin’s removal in a 2006 coup.

Throughout the political back-and-forth, the king remained aloof. Protesters on both sides focused their ire on the government and opposition forces, but did not touch the supremacy of the king. The yellow shirts attempted to claim the side of the monarchy, and many royalists supported the yellow shirts. But the red shirts too honored the king, and the king never spoke out against them. This began to fray towards the end of the red shirt campaigns, as election after election were overthrown by coups, evidently with the king’s blessing. But even then critiques were only uttered in murmurs.

Now, protesters have shed restraint. One major factor is the change in kings.

The previous king, Bhumibol Adulyadej, ascended the throne in the wake of WWII at just 18 years old, following the mysterious death of his older brother. He would remain on the throne until his death in 2016, making him at the time the longest reigning monarch in the world. Throughout his 60 years as king, Bhumibol commanded quasi-religious adoration in Thailand. Known as a sort of “people’s king,” he is ascribed a wide range of feats, from modernizing Thailand to inventing weather modification technology and starring in hit Jazz compositions. It has become a tradition to wear yellow on Mondays because Bhumibol was born on a Monday.

Unlike most constitutional monarchies in which royalty is largely ceremonial, Bhumibol wielded vast influence. Most crucially, he served as a moderating presence, mitigating internal conflict and extremism in any direction. During political crises in 1973 and 1992, the king was credited with intervening between mass protest movements and governments, mediating compromises and preventing either unbridled repression or revolution.

But as Bhumibol aged and fell ill, he appeared in public less and less, his moderating influence waned and the cracks between mainstream political camps widened and deepened. He tacitly endorsed the coups against Thaksin and Yingluck in 2006 and 2014, but by the latter it was unclear who was speaking for the infirm king. It is likely that the 2014 coup had a lot to do with the military being in power when Bhumibol died, enabling them to facilitate the transition to his successor.

The new king, Maha Vajiralongkorn, took the throne unofficially when his father died in 2016 and was officially coronated in 2019. Now in his late 60s, this king is the oldest ascendant Thai monarch, and, in stark contrast to his father, Vajiralongkorn is not widely respected. While King Bhumibol had the image of a stoic, solemn and caring ruler, Prince Vajiralongkorn was seen as a clownish and self-indulgent playboy. He was married several times in addition to having numerous mistresses, threw lavish parties and pulled stunts like giving his pet dog Fufu a senior military rank. He lives much of his life outside Thailand, and has spent the COVID-19 pandemic in a rented-out luxury hotel in Bavaria with his official consort and a 20-woman entourage.

In early 2020, as news has continued to emerge about the new king’s extravagance abroad, Prime Minister Prayuth moved to dissolve the main opposition party — his first major dictatorial move since putting up his façade of legitimacy as prime minister — making for a perfect storm of popular disgust with authorities. Protests hit the streets, at first mostly on campuses but soon escalating to the ongoing national movement.

The King Is Dead. Long Live the People!

Thai pro-democracy protesters making the three-fingered salute inspired by the Hunger Games. Bangkok, November 8, 2020. SPhotograph /

After the last coup, Prayuth’s NCPO had attempted to fix the rules of the system so that future elections could be held while guaranteeing the desired political results. In addition to quashing dissent, the NCPO used their time in power to institute a new constitution, which creates a “hybrid” political system, part-elected, part-appointed by the military government, and binding any new government to a pre-set 20-year policy plan. Elections would be slanted toward candidates of the military’s choice, and the constitution would limit the power of elected governments in the event that the military loses a vote. Essentially, the NCPO was trying to assemble a democratic government with as little democracy as possible.

Democracy has become a slippery concept. The language of democracy has become globally hegemonic, to the point that politics of all stripes claim to be in favor of democracy. Those who benefit from fundamentally anti-democratic principles like colonialism, racial supremacy and exploitation have branded their political projects as democratic. One only has to look at the United States’ decades of regime-change interventions in the name of democracy-building.

While the yellow shirts organized under the formal names of the “People’s Alliance for Democracy” and the “People’s Democratic Reform Committee,” they still endorsed Prayuth’s 2014 anti-democratic coup, which claimed to be protecting Thailand from its electorate by readying the nation for democracy. We are seeing a similar phenomenon play out domestically in the United States today, with Trump attempting to invalidate and overturn an electoral outcome by claiming American democracy is under attack.

When all sides claim to defend democracy, but at least one side is more committed to outcomes than to democratic processes, the language of democracy becomes divorced from political meaning. This makes a movement focused on democracy all the more tenuous.

In Thailand, the reality that the government is only committed to democracy so long as they are in charge has coincided with a critical focus on the billionaire king’s tax-funded monarchy. The king was so beloved that attaching the coup government to the monarchy seemed to be a stabilizing move in 2014. But with the change in kings, it has since proven to be a risky gambit. The corruption of both Prayuth’s government and the king now implicate each other.

The attention that is now paid to the king’s despotic and undemocratic behavior has led the protest movement to renew their focus on political and economic inequality in a way that grounds the concept of democracy firmly in the meaning of rule by the people. The largest day of protest last month left a spray-painted slogan across the streets of Bangkok: “The King is Dead. Long Live the People.” Exposing the contradiction between free speech and royal defamation laws has clarified the political struggle as one of power-with versus power-over. When this movement says they want democracy, they mean that the people should have a say in the decisions that govern their lives.

Breaking taboos

The combination of a coup government feigning democracy and a contemptible king has set the stage for years of resistance to congeal into a movement full of potential — not just to challenge the government in office, but to advance the struggle for a more liberatory society. The new calls to reform or remove the monarchy create favorable conditions for real change, but the movement must grow political vision and organization as they fight, or they risk losing, even if they win.

Protests today are breaking taboos. In Poland, protesters are openly confronting the Catholic Church. In Lebanon, protesters are uniting across religious and sectarian divides against the corruption of the ruling class. In the US, movements are calling to defund and abolish the police. And in Thailand, activists are challenging the king. Whatever happens with this moment of uprising in Thailand, the movement has broken a barricade that is not easily rebuilt.

What were thought to be unassailable institutions can crumble in the face of people power. Surveillance and riot suppression technologies and equipment have advanced leaps and bounds, and yet their deployment can still be countered with rubber ducks.

Only a few years after an iron-handed military coup crushed a pro-democracy movement, in a country where criticizing the king was both culturally unimaginable and highly illegal, thousands of young people are back in the streets calling out both government and king, and refusing to back down. The king might not be dead, but the spirit of absolute rule is dying — the people are rising.

Ben Case

Benjamin Case is a writer, educator and organizer based in the US. He is an affiliate faculty member at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and holds a Ph.D. in sociology from the University of Pittsburgh.

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