The sound of singing voices filled the crowded sidewalk surrounding Democracy Monument last week. A student, his head adorned with a yellow cloth featuring slogans in Thai, stood in the centre of a small crowd of people, young and old, speaking into a megaphone.
But the message being belted out was quite contrary to that of Thailand’s university protestors currently making headlines for their vocal activism.
“We will give the right information about our monarchy and the fact that somebody is using the youth against it!” he said to the group adorned in yellow t-shirts, waving Thai flags and singing tunes honouring the royal family.
His words were in response to the tidal wave of university protests sweeping Thailand this month, calling for a new round of democratic elections, an end to Thailand’s current military-affiliated government and, in the boldest of cases, criticism of the kingdom’s long-untouchable monarchy.
Many of these protests, populated largely by university students, have begun crossing Thailand’s forbidden line, criticism of the monarchy, with a new generation of cosmopolitan, globalised Thais pushing the boundaries of what has long been held sacred.
Protestors have been seen carrying placards calling for an end to royal defamation laws, others show support for critics of the military and monarchy who have gone missing in recent years, most recently Wanchalearm Satasksit in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh.
But Thailand’s monarchists are determined to uphold their beloved institution, and on 30 July, it was pro-monarchy demonstrators vowing to defend Thailand’s monarchy in the face of such backlash.
Among the protestors was 53-year old shopkeeper Arunee, who said that having a king was crucial for Thailand.
“Our country has been ruled by the king for a very long time,” she said. “If we did not protect our royal family, we couldn’t call it democracy, because our democracy is royal democracy.”
Arunee’s fellow protestors, decked out in sun hats, stood holding signs that read ‘Don’t touch the monarchy‘, further emphasising their readiness to protect the royal family’s legacy.
But while a range of ages is evident at monarchist protests, leading the charge in response to this rising wave of pro-democracy dissent are an entirely different band of students – vocational student activist groups. The protest on July 30 itself was reportedly organised by the Vocational Group Helping the Nation.
“Those vocational schools also played a role in the 2014 [People’s Democratic Reform Committee] protests,” said James Buchanan, a researcher of Thai politics with City University of Hong Kong.
The PDRC was a political movement mobilised in the lead-up to the 2014 coup that sought the removal of then-Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and the creation of an unelected, royalist government. Created under the eye of former Democrat Party secretary-general Suthep Thueaksuban, the group officially disbanded after the most recent coup.
Much as royalists have speculated and theorised about the ‘true’ organisers of student protests in the pro-democracy movement, so too have the pro-monarchy vocational student groups been scrutinised in their own right.
“Whenever the vocational students start getting political, like now or in 2014 with the PDRC, people wonder to what extent it’s genuinely them or to what extent they are mobilised by a third hand – perhaps even to the extent where many of them aren’t even real students,” Buchanan said. He added that some of the students have, in the past, “looked pretty old” to be in school.
The administrator of one Facebook page called Wiwata 2, who kept their full name and identity anonymous, told the Globe they searched the phone number listed for one vocational student activist Facebook group that had been promoting the recent protest. They said they had found it on the LINE messaging app as belonging to Danai Thipyan, a representative of vocational groups in past protests and, more recently, a political candidate for the Action Coalition for Thailand party, a pro-government organisation that counts Suthep as a core member.
After Wiwata 2 publicised this connection with a screenshot of the LINE search results, they said the phone number was deleted from the activist group’s Facebook page. Danai himself didn’t appear to be at the protest.
While there was a contingent of apparent vocational students in the 30 July protest, many of those who showed their support were indeed older, either perhaps alumni of vocational programmes or completely unaffiliated with the students.
In response to the university students challenging the monarchy, one protestor, who did not reveal his name but said he was 55-years-old and worked in business, expressed his disapproval.
“I don’t need people who don’t like the king,” he said.
The man, who wore dark sunglasses and a black hooded jacket throughout the rally, said those who spoke against the monarchy threatened what many consider one of Thailand’s three pillars – the nation, religion, and the royal family.
Piyabutr, are you unhappy? Go to your mom or wife if you’re unhappy
“We came here to show our loyalty to the nation, religion, and royal family. This is our purpose not for political reasons or for the government,” he said.
Other statements were overtly political in their nature.
One sign at the protest mocked Piyabutr Saengkanokkul, a member of the now-dissolved Future Forward Party that had a strong support base among university students and was viewed by some as a threat to the monarchy.
“Piyabutr, are you unhappy? Go to your mom or wife if you’re unhappy,” it read in Thai.
But for other royalists, such as a man who pulled up to the demonstration in a small, open-roofed car and proceeded to stand up, proudly wave a large Thai flag and dance to an anthem for Thailand’s late King Pubmiporn, the small demonstration focused primarily on the deep-rooted symbolic respect for the traditional monarchy.
“The reason we came here today is because we cannot stand the expressions and signs on social media from the opposite side,” the hooded businessman said. “The people who are loyal [like us] cannot stand that, so we gathered together today to stand our ground, to not let people walk over our beloved monarchy that united the whole country.”
With the clash between tradition and innovation, university and vocational students, Thailand remains divided and its future uncertain.