- - Thursday, January 7, 2021

BANGKOK | It wasn’t supposed to be that way, but Thailand‘s 68-year-old king and his loyal, testy prime minister suffered a dangerous 2020, relentlessly exposed to loud, satirical, young revolutionaries in the streets demanding democracy and limits to the monarch’s wealth and security forces.

“Maha” or “Great” King Vajiralongkorn and Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha now face a harsh January, struggling again to reclaim authority and stability in what has long been a key U.S. ally in the region.

Both men are expected to hang on, but the last few months have put some major dents in the authoritarian prime minister’s drive to consolidate power. For student-led protesters, the challenge now is to translate surprisingly durable popular protests into a lasting political movement.

“Prayuth does not seem to be in danger. The royal-military alliance seems to be unassailable,” said Michael Nelson of the Asian Governance Foundation, which focused on law, academia and other sectors in Asia. “The protesters, though big on Facebook, also have little backing in the population. And now, the government is getting tough with them.”

Mr. Prayuth seized power in a bloodless 2014 coup when he was army commander-in-chief, then pushed through a new constitution designed to keep him there. Today, he is dependent on royalists, industrialists, the U.S.-trained military, and an urban-based upper and middle class.

The king and prime minister however are challenged by tens of thousands of protesters who swarmed Bangkok‘s streets during the past six months. They promise to return after the New Year holidays.

Their three demands remain: topple Mr. Prayuth’s government, replace Mr. Prayuth‘s constitution — modern Thailand‘s 20th — with a new charter, and “reform” the monarchy.

Mr. Prayuth‘s administration was hailed for medical successes during COVID-19’s first year as an international virus. The death toll was limited to 60 people in this Southeast Asian nation of 70 million.

But the virus, as in many countries, has taken an ominous turn in recent days. A new outbreak last month threatens to send the country back to the worst infection rates of early 2020, The Associated Press reported. Absent a strong government response, health experts here say daily cases could top 10,000 day by the end of January, according to the AP.

But Thailand‘s devastated massive tourism industry, and downturn in some of its export markets, show no signs of quickly improving.

For 2021, anger against Mr. Prayuth may swell from people suffering in the ravaged economy, leaving both the government and its critics weakened.

“Another way to say it is the students may not have won much, but the government continues its string of losses,” David Streckfuss, author of “Truth on Trial in Thailand,” said in an interview.

Thailand is in a legitimacy crisis, an identity crisis, of unprecedented proportions,” facing a new generation “that is smart, flexible and quick, and that proposes a very new, modern view of Thai society that celebrates difference” in politics, ethnicity, gender diversity and other fields, Mr. Streckfuss said.

Most of 2020’s demonstrations, led by university students and school children, have been festive, featuring live music, speeches, political souvenirs and curbside food carts churning out cheap food.

But at some confrontations, security forces blasted them with truck-mounted, chemically irritating water. Protesters occasionally smashed police barricades.

Pointed protests

The latest boisterous street confrontations included flamboyant, fashion-disaster students prancing in public, mimicking what they say are the expensive clothing and sense of entitlement of royalists and other elites.

Dozens of protesters now face up to 15 years in jail for their camp gestures, costumes, and especially their often caustic accusations which royalists perceived as insults against the once-revered institution of the monarchy.

Arrests, charges and threats of imprisonment may have dampened some dissent, but galvanized others to rebel.

As a result of litigious government assaults on dissent, lawyers are deeply involved on both sides.

Some royalists appear to exploit legal loopholes to muzzle the young protesters’ defiance.

But the galvanized opposition has also suffered internal splits.

A previously hailed Youth Forum group recently signaled its interest in communism, and published a logo similar to a hammer and sickle — sparking complaints by others in the protest movement.

Protesters’ volunteer guards meanwhile began fighting among themselves in the street and aggressively grappled with police and their barricades — defying demonstrators’ claims to be peaceful.

Great King Vajiralongkorn, one of the world’s wealthiest monarchs, faces a balancing act to maintain his position of strength during 2021 while trying to adapt to an increasingly international public spotlight.

Protesters want to unlink the palace’s recent control over two army infantry regiments, and stop paying taxes which underwrite some of the monarchy’s ceremonies and activities.

They want the constitutional monarchy to revert to a more limited structure and role similar to the earliest years under Great King Vajiralongkorn‘s late father, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who died in 2016. They also want to delete the constitution’s amended Crown Property Act of 2017, which gave the king control of royal assets worth billions of dollars.

Royalists say many those assets originally belonged to Thailand‘s earlier kings and were subsequently inherited.

Bangkok‘s fast-moving treacherous politics also hit the American Embassy and Congress.

The embassy strenuously rejected royalists’ recent claims that current and recent American ambassadors secretly worked with Thai dissidents, stoked pro-democracy protests, and supported anti-government online campaigns.

Illinois Sen. Tammy Duckworth and eight other Democratic senators said in a joint resolution on Dec. 3, “violence and repression by the country’s monarchy and government,” were used against protesters.

Ms. Duckworth “went from hero to villain,” said Voranai Vanijaka. Ms. Duckworth, who lost her legs during the U.S.-Iraq wars, was singled out by Thais because her mother was Thai.

“Some senators” received “inaccurate information” about the protests, said Thailand‘s government spokesman Anucha Burapachaisri. “Their concerns are not shared by the rest of the U.S. Congress. The protesters have also been breaking the law with the intention to abolish the royal institution.”

The U.S. supported Thailand‘s dictators, elected prime ministers, and monarchy ever since World War II, including Bangkok‘s 13 coups. Relations improved again under Mr. Prayuth, who cultivated a relationship with President Trump and was rewarded with an Oval Office visit in 2017.

The incoming Biden administration may mean some more uncomfortable moments for the Prayuth government, particularly is human rights and civil liberties assume a larger role in U.S. foreign policy. Thailand‘s army, navy and air force however expect U.S. weapons sales, training, and public statements boosting the Thai military will continue under Mr. Biden.

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