BANGKOK – He was only 7 when he saw his first military coup. He was 15 during the second. Now 21, he is among those at the front of Thailand's growing pro-democracy movement pushing for sweeping political reforms.
And because of his activities, Bunkueanun Paothong has been charged with crimes that could see him jailed for the rest of his life.
“I took a stand I know that would be risky,” Bunkueanun said. “I stand firm in my principles and beliefs. Because it’s the right thing for me to do.”
Fed up with an archaic educational system and enraged by the military's efforts to keep control over their nation, the student-led campaign that began earlier this year has shaken Thailand’s ruling establishment with the most significant campaign for political change in years.
The protesters have three main demands: They want Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha’s resignation; changes to a constitution that was drafted under military rule; and, most controversially, reforms to the constitutional monarchy.
Political protest is nothing new in Thailand, and its past 15 years have been defined by it. Whether it was the red-shirted supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra or his yellow-shirted conservative opponents, some group could be counted on every few years to seize an airport, occupy a government building or blockade a key road in a bid to topple the government.
And like clockwork, the courts or the military could be counted on to intervene. Prayuth, a former general, first came to power in a 2014 coup.
But never before have protesters made such open calls for the reform of the monarchy in a country where reverence for the royal institution is inculcated from birth and protected by a law that makes defaming senior royals punishable by prison. The calls have infuriated some, resonated with others and most certainly complicated any solution to the latest crisis.
“We won’t back down, we won’t retreat and we won’t be open for talks until the government agrees on the three demands,” said Chonticha Changrew, who at 27 is one of the more senior protest organizers.
Many of those on the streets spent much of their lives living under military rule, and those old enough to vote got their first real chance last year. They flocked to a new party — Future Forward — whose smart and charismatic young leaders espoused a strong anti-military viewpoint.
The party shocked the establishment by winning the third-most seats. The military’s proxy party was able to cobble together a ruling coalition that put Prayuth back in the prime minister’s post. But Future Forward looked like it had room to grow.
Then in February, the Constitutional Court ruled Future Forward had violated campaign finance laws, dissolved the party and banned its leaders from politics for 10 years.
The students, already upset at what they saw as an undemocratic constitution that shifted power away from elected politicians to appointed bodies aligned with the military, took to the streets.
“What motivates the student protesters is that they see the ‘game’ of politics as being fixed,” said Chris Ankersen, an associate professor at New York University's School of Professional Studies Center for Global Affairs, who previously worked with the U.N. in Bangkok.
The initial protests barely had time to spread before the coronavirus pandemic hit, and the students retreated. They returned in July, when the virus threat eased, and pushed their core demands of new elections, constitutional changes and an end to intimidation of activists.
The protests gathered steam and took a stunning turn in August, when a few students at a rally aired unprecedented criticism of the monarchy. Using direct language normally expressed in whispers if at all, the speakers criticized King Maha Vajiralongkorn’s wealth, his influence and that he spends much of his time in Germany. Among their calls were for greater oversight of royal budgets and an end to the practice of Thai monarchs endorsing military coups.
While shocking to many, it emboldened others.
Events escalated on Oct. 14 when protesters heckled a royal motorcade that unexpectedly passed nearby. Security personnel stood between the vehicles and the crowd, and there was no visible violence.
Nevertheless, Bunkueanun and two others were charged under an obscure criminal statute on committing violence against the queen, who was in one of the vehicles.
“I was numbed, dumbstruck, and feared for my life,” Bunkueanun recalled. He turned himself in to police the next day and spent a day in jail before his release on bail.
Prayuth and his government responded to the incident and the protests with their tested playbook, declaring a state of emergency for Bangkok that banned gatherings of more than four people and gave authorities other broad powers. That only led to even bigger protests and the government eventually removed the emergency decree to try to ease tensions.
Prayuth has said he is open to some changes but has maintained that the monarchy should remain off-limits.
“While I can listen to and acknowledge the demands of protesters, I cannot run the country based on protester or mob demands,” he said Monday, opening a special session of Parliament his government called to ease tensions.
The students’ questioning of Thailand’s social structure is rooted in their experiences at school, said Thak Chaloemtiarana, a historian who has also been an administrator at Bangkok’s Thammasat University and Cornell University in the U.S.
“The current movement, while led by a handful of university students, has attracted younger students who have become politicized through more news and information from the internet and social media, and spurred by how their teachers and school administrators suppress individualism and exercise authoritarian policies that control dress code, haircuts, gender choice, and ceremonies that are seen as originating from feudal times,” he said.
In addition to political injustices, Thak said, young people were spurred to action by what they saw as the king's accumulation of power and wealth with the acquiescence of the military, as well as the military’s needless expenditures during a pandemic-weakened economy.
The protesters' aim at the monarchy has led to counterprotests by royalists who allege the students are being used as pawns by unidentified powers behind the scenes.
Unlike previous protests, today's demonstrators are far younger and have no clear links to any group or party, making them appear untainted by past quarrels, said Allen Hicken, political science professor at the University of Michigan.
The government has so far seemed indecisive about how to deal with the protests, torn between trying to placate or punish those involved. Neither approach has lessened the ardor or number of protesters, who adroitly use social media to organize short, quickly announced events that don't require the infrastructure of past demonstrations.
Police use of water cannons and chemical irritants against the young protesters this month drew broad public outrage, so it's not clear if the government would push a more violent crackdown like those in 1973, 1976, 1992 and 2010.
Chonticha is aware history is not on the protesters' side, but she says in some ways they have already succeeded.
“Our movement has changed the perception of Thais toward the monarchy and military,” she said. “If we cannot win this time, we still have planted the seed of criticism of the ruling elite and monarchy in the people’s minds.”
Associated Press journalists Tassanee Vejpongsa and Busaba Sivasomboon contributed.