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Revolutionary Years: 2020-2021

BANGKOK, Thailand -- 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 February but are expected to emerge secure.

"Prayuth does not seem to be in danger. The royal-military alliance seems to be unassailable," said Michael Nelson of the Asian Governance Foundation.

The foundation focuses on law, academia and other sectors in Asia. Its advisors include former commanding general of the U.S. Marine Corps in the Pacific, Lt. Gen. Wallace C. Gregson.

"The protesters, though big on Facebook, also have little backing in the population. And now, the government is getting tough with them," Mr. Nelson said in an interview.

Prime Minister Prayuth seized power in a bloodless 2014 coup when he was a general and army commander-in-chief.

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.

Their three demands remain: topple Mr. Prayuth's government, replace Thailand's 20th constitution 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 in this Southeast Asian nation of 70 million, but recently climbed to at least 80 dead.

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

During 2021, anger against Mr. Prayuth may swell from people suffering in the ravaged economy.

"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, whether in political thought, gender diversity, ethnicity, etcetera," Mr. Streckfuss said.

Most of the demonstrations, led by university students and school children, have been festive with 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.

The latest boisterous street confrontations included flamboyant, fleshy, fashion-disaster students prancing in public, mimicking the expensive clothing and snobby 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 monarchy.

The Criminal Code's Article 112 lese majeste law punishes anyone who defames, insults or threatens the king, queen, heir-apparent or regent.

The constitution also states: "The King shall be enthroned in a position of revered worship and shall not be violated. No person shall expose the King to any sort of accusation or action."

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 youngsters' defiance.

Protesters receive lawyers' pro bono leadership and support.

But their rebellious movement suffers 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 other protesters.

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, is expected 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 feed some of the monarchy's ceremonies and activities.

They also want to abolish the Article 112 lese majeste law.

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 manipulated Thai dissidents, stoked pro-democracy protests, and supported subversive online campaigns.

U.S. Senator Tammy Duckworth [Democrat-Illinois] and eight other Democratic party senators said in a joint resolution on December 3, "violence and repression by the country’s monarchy and government," were used against protesters.

"U.S. Senator Tammy 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.

"Thailand’s former model and actress Janjira Jujang called Senator Duckworth a 'double handicap person,' insulting her brain and her amputated legs," Mr. Voranai reported in the Bangkok-based Thisrupt news site he founded.

"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,” Mr. Anucha said.

The U.S. supported Thailand's dictators, elected prime ministers, and monarchy ever since World War II, including Bangkok's 13 coups.

During 2020, relations sweetened with then-President Trump who embraced Prime Minister Prayuth in the Oval Office in 2017.

If President Biden's administration emphasizes Thailand's lack of human rights, Bangkok's politicians might squirm.

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.

Much of Washington's focus on Bangkok concerns a perceived rivalry between the U.S. and China for Thailand favors.

***

Richard S. Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based American foreign correspondent reporting from Asia since 1978. He co-authored three nonfiction books about Thailand and contributed to the chapter "Ceremonies and Regalia" in a nonfiction book published in English and Thai titled "King Bhumibol Adulyadej, A Life's Work: Thailand's Monarchy in Perspective." Excerpts from his new nonfiction book, "Rituals. Killers. Wars. & Sex. -- Tibet, India, Nepal, Laos, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka & New York" are available at

https://asia-correspondent.tumblr.com

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