At the beginning of 2020, the United States watched the Kingdom of Thailand experience unprecedented calls for reform of the Thai monarchy. The turmoil in the country prompted the United States to determine how they would both support the human rights of the citizens while also maintaining interests with the current Thai government. Protests in Bangkok against the royal family, specifically King Vajiralongkorn, have been spearheaded by the upcoming generation of Thai young adults. The protesters consistently demand the dissolution of parliament, an end to the intimidation of the people, and a new constitution. In other words, the protesters of the monarchy in Thailand are pro-democracy. Despite the continuation of the protests, the demands seem to be falling on deaf ears. The monarchy has not directly acknowledged these demands from the protesters. Instead, they have sent the military to take back the streets with riot shields, rubber bullets, and water cannons. These protests are taking place mainly in Bangkok around the different college campuses and government monuments. The Royalists, for their part, have not been passively watching on the sidelines during these protests.
The political unrest in Thailand has several underlying causes; however, the main ones are dissatisfaction with King Vajiralongkorn and censorship. During the Covid-19 pandemic, the Thai government officials have been working hard to keep people safe in a densely populated city and country. The Thai people have taken the pandemic seriously and have been able to keep their numbers relatively low. While the Thai dealt with the pandemic, the King took up residence at a hotel in Germany with his entourage of women. Taking to Twitter, the youth started the hashtag “Why do we need a King?” which they tweeted over 1.2 million times. The protests started soon after the criticism on Twitter went global. Thai people ask themselves why they need a King if he lives in Germany when things get dangerous.
The second cause for the protests in Thailand is the law that prohibits criticizing the royal family and the way police enforce this law. The country has a history of military coups, and the current Prime Minister, Prayut Chanocha, is a benefactor of the most recent coup in 2014 when he took power. After Prime Minister Prayut took charge, the people’s distrust of the government has grown due to scandals, corruption, and the leader’s overall reaction to the opposition. Thailand has a law, “lese-majeste,” that forbids insult of the royal family. The military-backed government uses the law to crackdown on freedom of speech and defy political opponents. The punishment for disrespect to King is anywhere from three to fifteen years in prison. It is not a secret that people go missing in Thailand for speaking out against the monarchy and wide up being found dead floating in a river. The inability of the people to criticize the leaders of Thailand has caused frustration to build-up for years.
The government claims that it means the law to protect the royal family. However, in reality, the law is being used to eliminate voices that would oppose it. The recent protests in Thailand have led to the arrests of multiple students for breaking this very law. While the legal institutions of countries are outside of the control of the United States, the violation of human rights is a matter worth U.S. attention. Sanctions would motivate and put pressure on the Thai monarchy to play by the rules of their country. Sanctions for human rights violations would also be a sign of goodwill toward the people of Thailand. If Thailand replaces monarchy with democracy, then the United States will want to be seen as an ally of the people. The interests of the United States will be affected by who the leader of Thailand is. Good leaders of foreign countries are beneficial for the interests of the United States. Bad world leaders are not helpful for the interests of the United States. While this might seem obvious, the world thrives off of good leadership. When the United States sees poor leadership taking place in a country, it should consider what it can do to help the leader become more accountable to their people. If the United States is to have a strong ally in Thailand, it needs to have a good relationship with its leaders. Supporting good leadership in Thailand will help the United States open more doors down the road and build an ally.
So far, the United States has not gotten too involved in the protests in Thailand. Two United States senators have introduced a resolution expressing support for Thailand’s pro-democracy movement and calling on the U.S. government to do the same. The bill also calls for the authorities to “immediately and unconditionally release political activists and refrain from harassing, intimidating, or persecuting those engaged in peaceful protests.” The U.S. Senate resolution explicitly warned the Thai government against another military seizure of power, asserting that it “would be counter-productive and risk further undermining bilateral relations between the United States and Thailand.”
The political turmoil in Thailand puts the United States in a tricky position policy-wise. While the statements above are politically correct statements to make public, they do not influence policy on the highest level. Showing too much support for pro-democracy protesters would be problematic if no changes were to occur and the monarchy was to continue as the country’s leaders. On the other hand, United States will look bad in the eyes of the Thai people and their new leaders if democracy prevails. The goal of the United States should be to maintain a relationship with Thailand due to the other more pressing threats to national security that reside in Asia.
To maintain a positive relationship with Thailand, the United States must not take sides too early. The U.S needs to play the waiting game for right now. If the U.S wants to support Thailand in becoming a democracy, then the U.S. needs to personify the good qualities that come with having a democracy.