No stranger to political unrest, Thailand has been wracked by protests seemingly every several years and a dozen coups since transitioning from an absolute to constitutional monarchy in 1932.

But the most recent turmoil, sparked in February after the Constitutional Court dismantled the progressive Future Forward Party, is different, according to former ICWA fellow Matthew Wheeler (Thailand, 2002-2004).

Student- and youth-led demonstrators are not only calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, a former general who spearheaded the most recent coup in 2014 and strengthened military rule over the country at the expense of parliament. They’re also breaking a decades-long taboo of criticizing the monarchy—in this case King Maha Vajiralongkorn—in a turn that could fundamentally alter Thailand’s social and political order.

And they don’t appear to be backing down.

“One of the things that’s so remarkable about the current protests is that we really have passed into a new era here,” said Wheeler, a senior analyst for South East Asia at the International Crisis Group.

There’s no sign the movement is losing any steam even after Prayuth’s suspension last week of a state of emergency he had implemented in response to an Oct. 14 protest against Queen Suthida Vajiralongkorn Na Ayudhya as her limousine drove by demonstrators.

Days later, protesters marched on Germany’s embassy in Bangkok to demand that country’s government investigate potential political abuses by the king, who spends much of his time there. He was enabled to do so while still retaining power by a new constitution pushed through under Prayuth in 2017—Thailand’s 20th inside a century.

A new generation of Thais feels more distant from the royal family, which is why many of its members are now demanding it be held accountable to the constitution, Wheeler says. In the process, they’re flouting lese-majeste legislation that punishes criticism of the monarchy with a prison sentence of up to 15 years.

“Younger people, for the most part, don’t have that sense of immediate identification with the institution of the monarchy that their parents or grandparents may have had,” he said.

The situation is a far cry from the state of affairs Wheeler experienced while studying nations along the Mekong River as an ICWA fellow. His arrival in 2002 coincided with what he described as a period of relative optimism over the country’s political and economic course.

Then came a 2006 coup against the nationalist Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

“What I didn’t know at the time was that it was a calm before the storm,” Wheeler said. “Since that coup in 2006, it’s been just an extended conflict between forces of popular sovereignty on one hand and the traditional hierarchy on the other.”

Several factors are worth watching to understand how developments might unfold, Wheeler says. First is the coronavirus-induced economic shock that may well “hasten a social, economic and political reckoning,” according to a recent ICG report. Second are the dynamics of loyalty within Thailand’s military.

The only thing that remains certain, he adds, is how unpredictable the current crisis is. “Things could go in unexpected directions quickly in this new environment.”

Photo: Protesters displaying three-finger salute in front of the Democracy Monument, August 16, 2020. (Milktea2020, Wikimedia Commons)