In defiance of the Thai government’s declaration of a “serious state of emergency” in Bangkok and the arrest of more than 40 activists, thousands of protesters took to the streets again on Thursday. The day before, demonstrators in front of Government House were removed and gatherings of more than five people were banned. This is the third major protest since July, and it comes on the anniversary of the deadly 1973 military crackdown on students. But this clampdown is different, coming hours after protesters allegedly blocked a royal motorcade carrying the queen and her son, though videos indicate that the vehicle was allowed to pass. The crackdown exposes the government and military’s palpable fear that this year’s anti-government protests are entering a dangerous new phase. Citizens are no longer decrying the military’s domination of politics – they are also actively challenging the legitimacy of the monarchy. Thailand ’s royal family has long been off-limits for any criticism or debate. The kingdom has a strict lese-majesty law, which carries up to 15-year prison sentences. The government relies on a host of other laws to quell dissent, including the vaguely-worded Computer Crimes Act . As protesters rally, China opens its arms to embattled Thai government While there has always been some republican sentiment, the former monarch Bhumibol Adulyadej enjoyed high degrees of popular legitimacy because his reign coincided with the spectacular transformation of Thailand from a poor agrarian society into a middle-income country with a burgeoning middle class, tied to the global economy. While apologists for the late king would say he helped temper the military’s political ambitions, it is clear that, especially in his later years, two coups were thrown in his name and with his official blessing. Yet, most Thais believe that Bhumibol cared deeply about the country and devoted his life to the betterment of citizens until his death in October 2016. The current King Maha Vajiralongkorn enjoys little of that goodwill or legitimacy. He commands none of the respect or loyalty of his father, except by the most fervent ultra-royalists. He rules by fear. He has imprisoned not only former wives, but their entire families. He is capricious and power-seeking. When he does perform the rare ritual or perfunctory rite, he bears an expression of boredom and contempt. In an unprecedented public reaction, the Twitter hashtag #WhyDoWeNeedAKing continues to trend. The scandal-prone king is largely absent from his kingdom, spending most of his time in Germany, usually returning for little more than 24 hours. In contrast, his father rarely left Thailand so as to dedicate himself to the country’s development. The power of ridicule: meet the man roasting Thai army with satire As the Covid-19 pandemic wrecks Thailand’s economy, the king remains overseas. This is not what Thais have come to expect from their monarch. Vajiralongkorn has been holed up in a lavish resort in the German Alps with his consort and harem. Under political pressure, the German Foreign Ministry declared that he cannot rule from Germany. Upon his coronation, the king took over the Crown Property Bureau, a sprawling financial institution that controls large swathes of property, and major shareholdings. The CPB’s estimated US$30 billion in assets were previously held as a public trust. Today, he has sole authority over the CPB and can use it as his personal bank. This comes at a time when Thailand’s economy is facing the sharpest recession since the 1997-98 Asian economic crisis. It contracted by over 12 per cent in the second quarter and will fall 8-10 per cent in 2020. Unemployment is at record levels, while seven in 10 people have seen their average monthly income drop by almost half. The World Bank estimates that 9.7 million of the country’s 69 million population are economically insecure. From once being a constitutional monarchy, the Thai king has transformed to being closer to an absolute monarchy, with two military units now under his direct control. Academic Paul Chambers recently wrote about the career trajectory of military elites having served in these units. ‘Government’s got no game’: are Thai protesters gaining the upper hand? YOUTH PROTESTERS It is hard to blame the young protesters who have turned against the monarchy. In their lifetime, politics has been dominated by the Thai military, which has staged two coups d’état since 2006 and clung to power by rigging the vote, gerrymandering, drafting a constitution in its favour, as well as hamstringing the opposition through waves of legal assaults, disbarments/disbandments, and prosecutions. In short, the current government is illegitimate, and would not be in power without a host of legal abuses and elite machinations. The regime has already gone after opposition politicians, such as the head of the disbanded Future Forward Party Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, that believes to be republicans committed to overthrowing the monarchy, despite their expressions of loyalty. But the students who are now in the streets have watched the politicians that they voted for, who gained a plurality of the vote, become systematically marginalised, all in the defence of the monarchy. The military and their backed government are in a bind. They are committed to defending an indefensible king The Thai economy has flatlined in this period of time, while peer competitors such as Vietnam are booming. Thailand’s inequality has surged since the 2006 coup, and today Thailand is one of the most unequal societies in the world, and the most inequitable in Asean. This shameless and economically detrimental accumulation of wealth has transpired under military rule, all with the monarch’s blessing. The military and their backed government are in a bind. They are committed to defending an indefensible king, as they have identified the monarchy as one of the pillars of “Thainess”. The military is scared because the defence of the monarchy is one of the ways that the military justifies its pervasive interference in political life. No monarchy, no justification for coups or political machinations. They might actually have to return to barracks and stop enriching themselves. And the monarchy itself looks scared. Living in their European cocoon, protected by draconian lese-majesty laws, the royals have never known criticism, nor could they imagine it. And now they have tens of thousands of people risking their freedom and their future to demand reforms of the monarchy. By seizing and stubbornly clinging to power, refusing to accept an electoral mandate, and thwarting fundamental political reforms, all in the name of defending the monarchy, the Thai military has broadened the scope of the protests beyond itself to the monarchy. And despite over 40 arrests in the past day alone, not including the arrests of activists following the previous mass demonstrations, the protests are not going to stop. The military has ensured that. The author is a professor at the National War College in Washington, DC, where he specialises in Southeast Asian politics and security. The views are his alone, and do not represent the opinions of the National War College or Department of Defense.