SEVERAL OF THE protesters parading through Bangkok wore tiny crop tops and tight bicycle shorts, revealing torsos covered in elaborate temporary tattoos. Others mockingly prostrated themselves before the half-clad cyclists. The performance was a reference to the man they were marching against, Maha Vajiralongkorn, Thailand’s king since 2016. King Vajiralongkorn spends most of his time in Germany, where paparazzi occasionally manage to take snaps of him and members of his harem in the sort of get-up the marchers were mimicking. Not only were the demonstrations on September 19th and 20th, in which tens of thousands took part, the largest since the present bout of protests began in July; they also revealed how opposition to the government of Prayuth Chan-ocha, a coup-leader turned prime minister, is evolving into an unprecedented attack on the monarchy.
King Vajiralongkorn lacks the popularity of his late father, Bhumibol Adulyadej, who reigned for 70 years. His personal life is as colourful as his tattoos. In addition to his current (fourth) wife, he has a concubine whom he has officially designated as “royal consort” (a title not used in Thailand for nearly a century). More troublingly, he has meddled in politics, taken control of “crown property” worth perhaps $40bn and assumed direct command of thousands of soldiers based in Bangkok.
Although Thailand is in theory a constitutional monarchy, criticism of the king has long been taboo. King Vajiralongkorn, in a show of graciousness, has instructed the government not to prosecute people under the fierce law on lèse-majesté, which carries a prison sentence of up to 15 years for insulting the king, queen, heir apparent or regent. But those who denigrate royalty often find themselves charged with sedition instead, or computer crimes if they do so online. In July one man was taken to a psychiatric hospital after wearing a T-shirt that stated: “I have lost all faith in the institution of the monarchy.”
Such incidents make the protesters’ audacity all the more striking. “This country belongs to the people, and not the king,” read a plaque installed in the pavement by some of the organisers. “Down with feudalism, long live the people!” many shouted as they marched towards the royal palace. On arrival, they handed ten demands for reform of the monarchy to a hapless policeman guarding the empty building. These included curbs on the king’s interference in politics, the disbandment of his guards, the revocation of the lèse-majesté law and the dismissal of the current government.
Officials defending the king point out that the protests were allowed to proceed and that there was no descent into violence, as has often been the case with demonstrations in Thailand in recent years. The stoutly monarchist army has kept quiet. But there are bigger tests to come. The protesters have called for a general strike next month.
This article appeared in the Asia section of the print edition under the headline “Do you hear the people, king?”