The continuing conflict between the poor rural population, loyal to the former Prime Minister Thaksin, and the metropolitan classes (described under 10.b.) led to yet another military coup in May 2014. The coup ousted another Thaksin government, this time led by his sister Yingluck. The military claimed the reason for imposing martial law was the seven month long movement by anti-Thaksin forces, who occupied key sites in Bangkok and demanded a new constitution to prevent pro-Thaksin parties winning every election, as they had since 2001. This time the military consolidated their power, declaring Thailand's disorder was due to too much democracy, and created the National Council for Peace and Order, selecting General Prayuth Chan-Ocha as prime minister. The junta then postponed holding a new election until March 2019.
The military had civilian support in reverting to authoritarianism, for example among some political and professional elites. But the monarchy also has a key role in legitimizing the military - the links have been close since monarchical rule ended in 1932. The monarchy has, however, officially had a constitutional role within the parliamentary system. King Bhumibhol Adulaya-dej, who reigned for 70 years until his death in 2016, despite being allied with conservative and military forces was popular and generally respected. His son, King Maha Vajiralongkom, by contrast, is notorious for his extravagant and scandalous life-style, and he has continued to live abroad in Germany even after acceding to the throne. Nevertheless, he has also chosen since 2016 to increase his royal power, taking control of crown property and direct command of some regiments, and intervening in politics. He has also packed the privy council with his military allies.
When an election was eventually held in May 2019, the introduction of a new constitution ensured continuing military control and provisions to prevent success by pro-Thaksin forces. An Upper House of 250 members was to be directly appointed by the military, and 150 seats out of 500 seats in the Lower House were to be contested on a proportional representation basis favouring election of smaller parties. The prime minister was to be selected at a joint session of the Upper and Lower Houses. The military also controlled which parties were allowed to register for the election. Doubts about the election resulting in any real change were well-founded. Although pro-Thaksin candidates did well in the elections, the pro-military political party established a narrow majority in the Lower House, and the new parliament selected General Chan-Ocha as prime minister.
Students Lead 2020 Rebellion against the Military and the King
University and school students have played a key role in the determined and daring movement of protest that hit the headlines from the end of July to December 2020, but it originated from political events at the beginning of the year. In February the government banned the political party Future Forward, which had won 81 seats in 2019 election and which called for reforms to the army, more decentralized and democratic government and curbs on big business. There was a strong response by students, who took to the streets against the ban, and who later took up the party's policy demands. However, the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic prevented public demonstrations until the summer. The movement then erupted in Bangkok, spread to cities throughout the country and brought tens of thousands onto the streets, and maintained momentum until December. Although students were at the forefront, they had support from much of the population.
The student movement was coordinated through social media, especially Tinder and Tik Tok, drew on international internet culture - for example their distinctive three finger symbol of defiance was taken from the Hunger Games. It also playfully mocked the authorities, representing them for example with inflatable dinosaurs. But the movement also expressed clear and increasingly radical political criticisms of the military and the king, and issued demands for a new democratic constitution, a strictly constitutional monarchy and freedom for all political parties, as well as reforms to make education less authoritarian and hierarchical. The major demonstration on September 19 was timed to mark the anniversary of the military coup against Thaksin in 2006. A demonstration in December 2020 confronted the army barracks of a regiment under the direct control of the new king. Students risked mocking and confronting royal power despite the lese majeste laws dating from 1932, which made insulting the king and members of the royal family punishable by prison sentences of 3 to 15 years.
The military junta was uncertain how to deal with the demonstrations - arresting key individuals but allowing mass protests, and both imposing and then lifting emergency measures against demonstrations in October. However, towards the end of the year the government used more violence and more extreme measures against protesters, such as water cannons containing chemical irritants and pepper spray. Students responded by wearing hard hats, deploying inflatable ducks as a protection against water cannons, and looking to Hong Kong activists for inspiration, for example using umbrellas. A second wave of Covid-19 and consequent lockdown measures then effectively suspended public protest, and the regime used the opportunity to imprison leading activists and charge them with royal defamation and sedition.
When some protests did resume in March 2021, police used water cannons and batons, injuring some of the demonstrators. Some protesters interviewed expressed doubts about the clarity of political focus of the movement at that stage, and concern about opposition to the protesters and their demands within Thai society, especially among the older generation. Although youth opposition to the regime certainly remained, the momentum of the movement had been lost.
The references below cover the 2020 protests, but also provide background analysis of the 2014 military coup and of the nature of military and royal power currently being exercised.