Every year, a number of Thais gather at Thammasat University’s Tha Phrachan campus and at the October 14, 1973, memorial site on Ratchadamnoen Avenue to commemorate the student uprising on that date that restored democracy to the country. This year was unusual. Thousands, mostly young people and students, came together at the Democracy Monument on the same road not only to recall that struggle, but also to protest against the current order and call for reform of the royal institution. They believe the monarchy sits at the top of the pyramid of their country’s problems. During the demonstrations 47 years ago, students held portraits of King Bhumibol and Queen Sirikit, reaffirming the ‘royal nationalist democratic ideology’ developed during the Cold War. In contrast, the protesters of 2020 reject the monarchy’s role in politics. They have called for Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha to step down and for the military-sponsored 2017 Constitution that enhances the role of the monarchy to be rewritten. They also oppose the idea of military intervention in installing a royally sanctioned replacement for Prayuth. On October 14, 2020, a motorcade carrying Queen Suthida and Prince Dipangkorn Rasmijoti encountered marching demonstrators, who flashed three-finger salutes – a rebellious symbol borrowed from the Hunger Games films – to protest against the establishment that has ruled Thailand since the 2014 military coup. They yelled “ phasi ku ”, or “my taxes”, to protest against the use of public money to support the royal family’s lavish lifestyle. This prompted the government to declare a state of emergency to disperse the protesters, some of whom were arrested. SPONTANEOUS DISRUPTIONS Frustration among young Thais has been growing since 2014 when former army chief Prayuth toppled the elected government under Yingluck Shinawatra and then consolidated his power as junta chief and prime minister until 2019. Elections that year saw him use all means at his disposal, such as a hand-picked Senate and military support, to remain in power. In the polls held in March 2019, Prayuth won a slim majority of 252 out of 500 seats in the House of Representatives. He faced opposition from the Phuea Thai Party, which won the most votes, and from the progressive Future Forward Party (FFP), which was popular with the new generation. While the dissolution of the FFP in February 2020 strengthened Prayuth’s government, it disappointed many first-time voters. Over the past six years, Prayuth’s authoritarian style, his restrictions on freedom of expression, and the country’s poor economic performance – its GDP is expected to contract 7.8 per cent in 2020 – widened the fault lines that caused the youthquake this February. Why are there protests in Thailand and what will happen next? Young activists formed “flash mobs” to vent their pent-up frustrations. The tactic became famous in Thailand after the 2014 coup, when youngsters used it in the face of restrictions on assembly and freedom of expression. Flash mobs have been widely used since then to play cat-and-mouse with the authorities. Youthful protest is now decentralised, with no umbrella organisation to steer it. Students and activists have come together on an apparently ad hoc basis. Members of the Free People movement demonstrated on August 16, demanding the government cease acts of intimidation, that a new constitution be drafted and the House of Representatives dissolved; the United Front of Thammasat and Demonstration protested on September 19, calling for reform of the monarchy; and on October 14, the People’s Party 2563 had three demands – Prayuth’s resignation, a new constitution and reform of the monarchy. Celebrities came out to support the protesters after they were dispersed with water cannons on October 16-17. Film star Intira “Sai” Charoenpura, a frequent face at protests, found fan clubs for Korean and Chinese pop idols had poured millions of baht in financial support through her accounts; she used these funds to purchase helmets, raincoats, gloves and safety hats for protesters. Social media has played a crucial role. The youth use it to express their views, to communicate and create networks of like-minded people. Platforms like Facebook, Line and Twitter have carried protest messages, including criticism of the monarchy, which the mainstream media avoid. The modus operandi of the protests works like blockchain technology, in which social media play the role of a chain to connect peer-to-peer nodes or groups of protesters. Every node in whatever location has its own autonomy and agenda. Thai protests inspire sex workers to break the prostitution taboo This decentralised style of operation has been able to survive the massive arrests of protest leaders following the state of emergency. Since then protesters have used Facebook to call for flashmobs in train stations and intersections across the country. These gatherings did not require stages, high-volume loudspeakers, orators or leaders. Some protesters joined with their own equipment such as megaphones, posters, banners or spray paint. Like Hong Kong’s protesters, the Thai protesters created their own means of communication and coordination. Authorities have struggled to contain their rallies, with the protesters enjoying playing cat and mouse. A new vocabulary has been invented: “ kaeng the pho ” means “to fool the police”, “carrot” and “baby carrot” mean monk and novice in their saffron robes, “mocha coffee” means the police, “ o-liang ” (a type of sweet cold coffee) means riot police, “broccoli” refers to the military, “minions” are men with crew cuts in yellow shirts, “Natasha Romanoff” – a reference to the Avengers character Black Widow – means secret agent, and Smurfs were protesters hit by water cannons spraying blue liquid. RE-READING NATIONAL HISTORY The Thammasat University protest on August 10 set a precedent. The protesters’ 10 demands – which included restricting royal power in politics, abolishing the Royal Office, reallocating crown property and the budget for the monarchy, and abolishing the lèse-majesté law – shook Thailand. They called for the revocation of a law that forbids accusations against the king, and to allow parliament to examine wrongdoings of the king, as was stipulated in the constitution promulgated by the People’s Party or Khana Ratsadon, which replaced Siam’s absolute monarchy with a constitutional monarchy in 1932. With China in background, Thailand shrugs off US suspension of duty-free tariffs “The people ought to know that the king of our country is not above politics,” the protesters of the United Front of Thammasat and Demonstration said. “This has consistently been the root of political problems. He has neglected his duties of being the head of state that binds him to the hearts of the people and uses the people’s taxes to seek pleasure and reside outside the country … He also has close relationships with the rebels who foment coups to topple democratic rule.” On September 20, protesters installed their own Khana Ratsadon 2563 plaque at Sanam Luang, which they renamed “Sanam Rat”, to imply that the royal ground belonged to citizens, not the king. Since 2010, political activities on Sanam Luang had not been allowed; and the place had been reserved for royal ceremonies. The plaque, removed by officials within a day, stated: “Right here! The people have expressed their conviction that this country belongs to them; it is not the property of the king as they have deceived us to believe.” Royalists have claimed the young protesters hate the nation, but the protesters reject this. They say they oppose the elite’s monopoly and define “nation” differently. “Nation is not the monarchy. Nation is the people. So we do not hate the nation as they claim,” said a student at the Thammasat University protest. The protesters say that rather than looking to topple the monarchy, they wish to reform it as a constitutional monarchy. This is why students have called themselves the People’s Party and installed a plaque to reaffirm the spirit of the 1932 revolution. The message is that the monarchy must operate within the constitution, with accountability and in compliance with the rule of law. The decentralised, disruptive and disordered nature of the protests indicates that a huge number of Thais seek fundamental change. The students do not want power to run the country for their own sake. They want to change the rules of the game for the future of the country. Supalak Ganjanakhundee was Visiting Fellow in the Thailand Studies Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute from October 1, 2019, to June 30, 2020. He is the former editor of The Nation (Bangkok). This article was first published as ISEAS Perspective 2020/127 “Youthquake Evokes the 1932 Revolution and Shakes Thailand’s Establishment”.