Opinion: Deciphering the Thai Phakdee Royalist Group

A pro-establishment rally at Thai-Japan Din Daeng Stadium in Bangkok on Aug. 30, 2020.

BANGKOK — Last Sunday, royalists finally formed a new group. They held a counter-protest in Bangkok in a bid to oppose anti-government protesters demanding not just new elections, new charter but reforms of the monarchy institution.

Their beliefs and sense of urgency was highlighted by allegations that the government of the United States is behind anti-government and monarchy-reform demonstrators on the other side, an allegation which the US Embassy in Bangkok quickly denied after I rang them up on Monday.

Then there’s the generation gap that makes for more bitter conflicts ahead.

A number of speakers on the stage believe the US is either funding or using and manipulating anti-government protesters to undermine not just the Prayut Chan-ocha administration but that of the monarchy and Thailand. Cases of countries like Iraq, Syria and Lebanon have been mentioned on stage as precautionary tales.

Charts are being presented at the Sunday’s gathering which took place inside Thai-Japan Din Daeng Stadium and names like George Soros and the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) which is funded largely by the US congress have been mentioned.

The discourse means anti-government protesters are now perceived as a pawn, willingly and knowingly or not, of the United States. It’s dangerous. It basically pushes those unhappy with the Prayut regime and the monarchy into becoming not just “nation haters” (khon kliad chart) but that of traitors (khon khai chart). They are not just opponents but enemies.

This is a disturbing turn of events and the discourse will further poison the already deeply toxic political conflicts where blocking those who disagree with you politically from social media is normal. The current conflict is becoming a zero-sum game and many on both sides now regard those on the opposite camp as not their competitors or opponents but mortal enemies.

Another point apparent for all to see was that among the 1,000 plus royalist demonstrators gathered on Sunday, the vast majority are people in their 40s and older.

This could be read as dwindling support for not just the Prayut government but the monarchy institution among young Thais. I say this because the biggest concerns of Thai Phakdee group as they stated themselves is the protection of the monarchy institution from any demands for reform.

During the demonstration, debt of gratitude was expressed to just not the current king, Rama X, and his late father, Rama IX, but monarchs from the distant pasts such as King Naraesuan and King Taksin who fought and freed Siamese from Burmese invaders.

The group of Sunday appeared more like an ageing group of royalists. Its leader, Warong Dechgitvigrom, a former senior member of the Democrat Party, is himself 59. Majority of his supporters who gathered were in their forties, fifties and even older.

On the other side, the majority of the demonstrators are young Thais, mostly in their early twenties who are fed up with not just Prayut but the whole rigid and hierarchical structures on Thai society from restrictions at schools, political repression and controls over what one can legally say about the monarchy without having to go to prison or face an even worse predicament.

This political clash is both ideological and generational.

With a new generation challenging them and the old order, ageing royalists feel even more threatened because the traditional Thai social norm of deference for the elders is also being crumbling. The young are perceived as insolent.

Royalists could not bear hearing or reading messages from “brash” young Thais making rude comments or negative innuendo about the monarchy and calling for an alternative future that these older Thais are unfamiliar and like a fish out of the water. They feel threatened and can’t bear seeing their old ways of life under threat and are now putting up a fight.

Let’s hope the fight doesn’t end with political violence that is followed by yet another military coup.