The stage at the “Harry Potter vs He Who Must Not Be Named” protest in Bangkok on Aug. 3 was decorated with images of the franchise’s villain, Lord Voldemort. The framed pictures were a not-so-subtle allusion to the portraits of Thailand’s king that typically festoon public spaces. As he prepared to address the crowd in a Harry Potter costume, 36-year-old human rights lawyer Arnon Nampa swapped his wand for a microphone and made the comparison explicit, shattering taboos around the country’s most hallowed institution.
“We seriously need to discuss the monarchy’s role in Thai politics,” he said.
Despite the tongue-in-cheek setup, the subject — and the risks involved — could not have been more serious. Thailand’s powerful sovereign is normally shielded by some of the world’s harshest royal defamation laws. A lèse majesté charge can mean a 15-year prison sentence under a law wielded as a tool of broader repression — “political weaponry in the guise of a legal system,” as Jakrapob Penkair, a former minister to the prime minister’s office, described it.
From the outset, the mostly student-led protests that have beset the country since July 18 have made veiled references to Thailand’s royalty through metaphors and jokes. “The People’s Party Isn’t Dead,” one early banner read, a reference to the political party that ended absolute monarchy in the 1932 revolution. Other placards drily asked about the weather in Germany, where the current king and his harem reportedly spend much of their time.
But Arnon was the first at the protests to stand up and articulate what has now become the movement’s most incendiary demand: curbing the palace’s powers. In 30 minutes, he defied pervasive self-censorship and helped launch an ongoing, public debate about the king.
Officially, Thailand is a constitutional monarchy, with the king considered above politics. But throughout decades of political upheaval, the royal institution has wielded tremendous influence.
“People are sick and tired of living under a repressive regime,” Arnon tells TIME via a video call from Bangkok.
The 36-year-old has certainly lit a fuse. “He has sparked an important discussion in our society,” says Nuttaa Mahattana, a prominent activist.
In Arnon’s wake, a faction of students followed up with a 10-point manifesto calling for the pruning of the national budget allocated to King Maha Vajiralongkorn, estimated to be one of the world’s richest monarchs. The manifesto also called for an end to “public relations and education” that “excessively” glorifies the monarchy, an investigation into “the murder of those who criticized” the monarchy, and the abolition of the sovereign’s power to endorse coups, which have taken place multiple times in Thailand over the last century.
“Let it end in our generation,” has become a rallying cry, while protesters flash the three-fingered Hunger Games salute.
To be sure, many Thais remain supportive of the palace, an institution widely seen as almost sacred. Even within the protest movement, not everyone supports bringing the monarchy’s role into question. Some fear the controversy could jeopardize the other objectives, namely an overhaul of the political system and new elections under a revised constitution. But in the weeks since Arnon first defied the taboo, the protest ranks have only continued swelling.
Around 40,000-50,000 people gathered at an overnight rally on Sept. 19, according to local media estimates — the largest protest since a military junta overthrew the last democratically elected government in 2014. After again openly challenging the king, student activists delivered a letter detailing their 10 demands to police.
“It’s unprecedented in Thai history to see mass protests openly calling for reform of the monarchy,” says Andrew MacGregor Marshall, a journalist and author of A Kingdom in Crisis.
Prayuth Chan-ocha, the junta leader turned prime minister, has warned protesters against challenging the royal establishment and said the kingdom could be “engulfed in flames” if demonstrations persist.
Since delivering his groundbreaking speech, Arnon has been in and out of jail, charged with sedition, among other crimes — and analysts and activists both fear that, like past protest movements, this one too will be brutally quelled
“There are some people [who] left [the] movement not because they disagree but they are afraid,” says Tattep Ruangprapaikitseree, a student leader of the Free Youth Group. Still, he agrees with the calls to reform the role of the king. “We need real political change in order to transform this country to a democracy … power belongs to the people.”
Others see the possibility of real change. “Even in the face of lèse majesté law, the youth are willing to talk openly about the monarchy,” says Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a self-exiled critic of the monarchy who teaches in Japan at Kyoto University. “The walls protecting the monarchy are collapsing.”
Protesting against Thailand’s monarchy
With his boyish mop of unruly hair, Arnon hardly looks the part of an iconoclast. His friends and colleagues describe him as principled, dedicated and funny. Yet he has spent the past decade defending regime critics and those who know him well are not surprised he broke the muzzle on public discussion of the monarchy.
“This issue is his everyday life’s work,” says Chiranuch Premchaiporn, a co-founder of online news site Prachatai, who Arnon helped defend against lèse majesté charges.
The son of paddy-rice farmers in Thailand’s northeastern Roi Et province, Arnon grew up in the rural heartland known for its antipathy toward the Bangkok-based establishment. Arnon ascribes his political awakening amid the color-coded protests that followed the 2006 coup, when Red Shirt supporters of populist Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra battled Yellow Shirt royalists.
“I grew up in the climate of rallies,” he tells TIME.
Seeing the harassment of villagers campaigning for environmental rights inspired him to become a lawyer. But he soon specialized in clients facing lèse majesté cases, fighting a law he considers an anachronistic political cudgel. (The law is also wielded for personal vendettas, since anybody can bring a complaint under the law against anyone else. “Not only you can be charged by the authorities, but also by your neighbors or your family members,” says Chiranuch. “They are all playing the role of vigilantes.”)
Enforcement of defamation laws surged after Prayuth seized power, according to International Federation for Human Rights, with 105 people arrested between May 2014 and May 2017. One was against a 61-year-old grandfather who died while serving a 20-year sentence for sending what were considered anti-royal text messages to a secretary of the then prime minister.
In response to growing repression after the 2014 coup, Arnon co-founded Thai Lawyers for Human Rights, which provides free legal support to dissidents. He also raised funds for political prisoners and joined anti-coup protests.
As his activism increased, Arnon became a mainstay in court not just as a lawyer, but as a defendant. He says he’s lost count of the charges that have racked up against him, including some related to 2018 protests calling for fair elections. Despite his latest, five-day stint in jail earlier this month related to the protests (when he notes his shaggy hair became a “prison cut”), he remains undeterred.
“I want my daughter to grow up in a society where she can enjoy her freedom, her liberties, and live in a society with equality,” he tells TIME while the four-year-old plays in the background.
Thailand’s monarchy and politics
For Arnon and increasing numbers of demonstrators in the streets, the root of Thailand’s problems lie in its monarchical traditions.
“We know that this dictatorship serves the monarchy closely,” he says. “If we don’t fix the monarchy, we can’t fix anything else.”
According to the constitution, the king is “enthroned in a position of revered worship.” The military backs the palace’s position as Thailand’s highest moral authority, with its chief taking an unprecedented oath last year to support only a government loyal to the king. Despite being theoretically removed from the nation’s turbulent politics, the palace has acted as the final arbiter after coups formally endorsing each political overthrow since at least 1947. After disputed elections last year, King Vajiralongkorn gave his approval to former junta leader Prayuth Chan-ocha’s military-heavy cabinet.
Since taking the throne in 2016, Vajiralongkorn has concentrated power and wealth even as he spends most of his time overseas. With changes to the constitution, he made it easier to rule from abroad, brought two important army regiments under his command and gained ownership of the Crown Property Bureau, a vast real estate and investments portfolio valued at $33 billion, according to a semi-official 2011 biography on Vajiralongkorn’s father.
“Most Thais are appalled that the king is living in Germany with his harem instead of staying in Thailand during the pandemic,” says Marshall, the journalist. “But the main concerns for Thais are his extravagant cruelty and hunger for power.”
In March, a Thai hashtag translating as “#WhyDoWeNeedaKing?” was used more than a million times on Twitter. Royalist Marketplace, a private Facebook group critical of the monarchy, had over a million followers before the Thai government demanded Facebook block the page. Within a week, a replacement appeared.
Social media has not only helped loosen taboos around questioning the monarchy, but also disseminated fiery protest speeches like Arnon’s to wide audiences.
“It’s the first time this discussion has been so mainstream,” says Nuttaa, the activist, adding that she live-streamed Arnon’s speech.
In Thailand, past kings have been treated with reverence. And the current movement is not without detractors.
“We are okay with evolution, but not revolution as this group has been trying to do,” says politician Warong Dechgitvigrom, who started a royalist counter-protest group called Thai Pakdee, or Loyal Thai. The group’s largest rally to date, held in Bangkok at the end of August, attracted around 1,000 supporters. Warong says they have no further protests planned; they are focusing instead on “educating the people” about the “anti-monarchist” protesters.
In the past, speaking out has had deadly repercussions. Several exiled dissidents have gone missing and are presumed dead. Two turned up in the Mekong river, their bodies stuffed with concrete, in December 2018. This current round of protests was in part sparked by the abduction of a Thai activist from Cambodia in June, and the psychiatric institutionalization of another man for wearing a t-shirt that said he had lost faith in the monarchy.
“From now on, no one else who speaks about the monarchy should be accused of being mad, of being insane, or carried off to hospital even though they are speaking the truth,” Arnon told the crowd at the Harry Potter protest.
What’s next for Thailand?
While the protests do not have a single leader, many of the rally organizers are young activists who study at Bangkok’s top universities and are the children of conservative, urban elites. This marks departure from past movements that revolved around prominent politicians and pitted rural agitators against the establishment in Bangkok.
Thailand’s last big mobilization of student protesters in 1976 ended after state forces massacred demonstrators on the lawn of Thammasat University. Analysts say authorities have avoided a hard crackdown on the current protests for fear it could galvanize a bigger turnout. In June, the prime minister said the king, in his “mercy,” had instructed the government not to enforce lèse majesté — even if other laws, like sedition and the cyber crimes act, are being used to squash dissent.
Government spokesperson Anucha Burapachaisri tells TIME authorities “want to keep it peaceful.” He adds: “We will try to listen to their points and protect them in terms of public safety.”
Army Chief Apirat Kongsompong has not been so receptive. “COVID-19 is a curable disease,” he said in a recent speech, “but hating the nation, hating one’s own country, this is a disease that is not curable.”
The palace and the king meanwhile have kept silent.
The protests come amid a difficult time for the country, which escaped the worst of the pandemic, but has been hard hit by the evaporation of tourism. Southeast Asia’s second-largest economy is now expected to contract by 8.5% this year, the worst decline in Asia.
The economic crunch and latest round of political turmoil pose the biggest challenge to Prayuth since he claimed power in 2014. While he has pledged to restore democracy, many young people see his administration as doing little to improve the country’s prospects, while instead more firmly entrenching the military’s role in government.
In long-awaited elections last year, young people turned out for new, progressive parties. But a 2017 constitution that was drafted by the military returned the generals to power, and installed Prayuth — who had campaigned on a platform of preserving Thai culture and loyalty to the king — as prime minister.
The people, says Arnon, “cannot put up with it anymore.” At stake, he adds, is nothing less than Thailand’s democratic future, a prospect already waylaid by several cycles of military intervention.
Arnon sees a crackdown as inevitable. But he and others fear further democratic erosion if the nation slides back into greater monarchical control.
“I think our goal is worthy for everyone in Thailand. It is so worthy that we activists and protesters are willing to sacrifice our personal freedom in order for a chance to attain these goals,” he says.
For now, he has already achieved at least one previously unthinkable feat in Thailand: breaking the silence around the monarchy.
—Additional reporting by Navaon Siradapuvadol
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Write to Laignee Barron at Laignee.Barron@time.com