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Thai Students Protest Military, Monarchy

NOEL KING, HOST:

There may be a showdown in Thailand this weekend between the military-backed government and student groups who want reforms. They want the dissolution of the Thai government. And with great risk, they are criticizing Thailand's monarchy. Michael Sullivan has the story.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #1: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #2: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Non-English language spoken).

MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: The nationwide protests have been building for weeks and reached a peak so far on Monday night, thousands turning out in Bangkok in one of the largest demonstrations since the 2014 coup that paved the way for this military-backed government to take office. But this time the protesters added a new twist - publicly calling out the Thai monarchy, the taboo third rail of Thai politics.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ARNON NAMPHA: (Non-English language spoken).

SULLIVAN: Activist-lawyer Arnon Nampha was the first of several speakers who questioned both the role of the military in Thai politics, the current king's wealth and the fact that he spends most of his time in Germany, not Thailand. Some in the crowd cheered. Many flashed the three-fingered sign of resistance from "The Hunger Games" movies. And when they were done, the student leaders offered a 10-point manifesto aimed respectfully at clipping the king's wings.

DAVID STRECKFUSS: What the lawyer said and what students said soon after was the first time in modern Thai history that the monarchy has been talked about publicly in a critical way.

SULLIVAN: David Streckfuss is an independent scholar living in Khon Kaen, Thailand. He's written a book about the lese-majeste laws in Thailand used against the monarchy's perceived critics, laws that carry prison terms of up to 15 years.

STRECKFUSS: It's part of, I guess, an evolution of rethinking the monarchy that's been largely underground, online, in chat groups about the role of the monarchy within a more democratic Thailand.

SULLIVAN: That's not the Thailand that exists today.

MATT WHEELER: The symbiosis between the palace and the military has been at play in Thailand for many decades. And it's the military's ability to call upon the mantle of legitimacy that the palace can offer is what allows them to successfully stage coups d'etat.

SULLIVAN: Matt Wheeler, a senior Southeast Asia analyst for the International Crisis Group - he says the students realize that relationship is part of the problem, which is why they want to reform both institutions in order to move forward. Thitinan Pongsudhirak is a professor of political science at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University.

THITINAN PONGSUDHIRAK: They've seen ineffectual, incompetent military government followed by an elected coalition government still backed by the military leading Thailand to nowhere. Thailand's at a standstill. So these young people now, they want their future back, and they won't go away until they have it.

SULLIVAN: But is the military in any position to compromise given its long-standing self-appointed role as defender of the monarchy? And would the king go along? Few analysts believe either will happen. Again, Matt Wheeler...

WHEELER: My suspicion and the reason I'm worried is that their sort of normal recourse is to employ greater repression in order to silence the voices that they don't want to hear.

SULLIVAN: It's happened before - in 1973 and '76, in 1992 and in 2010, he says. Thitinan Pongsudhirak...

PONGSUDHIRAK: The role of the military itself, which draws its legitimacy from the monarchy, is very much at stake. And I think the military, if they think that this can be put down like previous protest movements, they may be mistaken. But yes, I think that we're headed for more tension and more turmoil before we see any kind of clarity.

SULLIVAN: The student-led coalition is planning another large demonstration on Sunday.

For NPR News, I'm Michael Sullivan, in Chiang Rai.

(SOUNDBITE OF INSPIRATIVE COMPOSITION) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.