With ‘Hunger Games’ Salutes, Thais Defy Norms Over Monarchy

Under Thai law, defamation against the king is punishable by up to 15 years in prison. But new demonstrations are pushing boundaries over what can and can't be said.
September 21, 2020, 7:13am
Thailand, king
Security forces stand guard in front of the Grand Palace in Bangkok on September 20, 2020, following an overnight pro-democracy rally. Thousands of protesters cheered as activists installed a new plaque on September 20 declaring that Thailand "belongs to the people" -- the boldest show of defiance in a youth-led movement which is questioning the unassailable monarchy's role in the country. Photo: AFP

A lone protester slowed as he walked by a large portrait of the Thai king. The unidentified man raised the three-finger salute from the Hunger Games movies, the de facto gesture of Thailand’s new pro-democracy movement. Energized by his passion, a handful of others did the same. The spectacle would have been unthinkable to see in a public place before. But history was being made on this quiet but tense Sunday morning, Sept. 20.

Usually the entrance to Bangkok’s palace grounds is halcyon, accessed only by the elite and, in pre-coronavirus times, busloads of tourists. But overnight, after tens of thousands filled the grassy and concrete area outside mixing calls for the government to resign with demands for reform of the monarchy, police had set up concrete blockades with razor wire. Hundreds stood guard. They were there to shield against thousands of protesters, some wearing homemade riot gear, others wielding bats and tennis rackets but most carrying only their smartphones and placards. 

Standing on top of a truck, Parit “Penguin” Chiwarak, one of the leading Thai faces of the new movement that has stunned the establishment, addressed the protesters. “Everyone try to be calm, please be careful not to clash with the police!” Parit warned. “Thank you for joining us, but we must use caution.”

Another youth leader, Panusaya “Rung” Sithijirawattanakul, led a crowd of demonstrators directly towards the line of police. The 22-year old Rung, Parit and many of their peers were staring down Thailand’s most powerful institutions, the monarchy and the military-backed status quo. Violence was a real possibility. But that wasn’t the goal. Protest leaders made it clear as they approached the front of the palace that they did not want to use force.

The police had two options. First, peacefully accept a letter demanding that the sweeping powers of King Maha Vajiralongkorn, who spends most of his time in Germany, be curbed. If not, the protesters would likely push through the blockade and hand deliver the petition to the Privy Council themselves, an unheard of meeting between palace officials and the public. Authorities were outnumbered, but any use of force would send the growing protest movement to a new level. Everyone waited to see what would happen.

Cooler heads prevailed. Within minutes, Phakphong Phongphetra, head of Bangkok’s Metropolitan Police Bureau, allowed the young activist leader, Rung, to enter through the line of police and discuss their demands. She first personally read him their demands before handing off the letter.

“We ask that General Prayut Chan-ocha [the prime minister], and all of those who have been appointed by the [military] who have been keeping the dictatorial regime going, to resign,” she said directly to Phongphetra. He accepted the letter and promptly left. 

The Symbolic ‘People’s Plaque’

Hours earlier, protesters kicked off the morning to the sound of revolution-themed music blaring from speakers set up the night before on Saturday, Sept. 19. Tens of thousands of anti-government protesters occupied the space outside the palace, called Sanam Luang. Many stayed overnight. At around 6:30AM, leaders installed a simple brass plaque on the concrete ground.

"At this place the people have declared their will: this country belongs to the people and is not the property of the monarch as has been falsely claimed," the plaque reads. It also features the three-fingered salute from the Hunger Games.

It was installed to replace a historic plaque located at the Ananta Samakhom Throne Hall, near the steps of Bangkok’s Dusit palace. It commemorated the 1932 revolution that curtailed absolute monarchy in Thailand. The fresh plaque also marked the location where progressive military officers, bureaucrats, and their troops massed at the palace grounds during that historic day almost a century ago. But the plaque mysteriously vanished in 2017. Many believe it was removed on orders from the palace. Political analysts say the removal of the historic plaque was one act in a long effort to chip away at monuments and buildings that symbolize the 1932 revolution. 

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The "People's Plaque" when it was installed (L) and after its removal a day later (R). Photo: AFP

For the last two months, the protests have been building steadily. Thailand’s all powerful palace has never been challenged with such strong symbolism in modern Thailand.

The new movement is openly discussing the role of the ultra-rich institution, which is protected by lese-majeste laws that carry up to 15 years in prison per count. The protesters were calling for the king’s expansive powers to be limited. They specifically asked that Article 112 outlining royal defamation laws be abolished, to investigate the enforced disappearances of activists, and for the king to no longer endorse coups, among other numerous demands. Others are calling on people to not stand during the royal anthem played before movies in Thailand.

Authorities have bided their time and avoided a large-scale forceful crackdown, charging several organizers but releasing them on bail. Yet is still a deeply controversial and sensitive time.

“We’re ready for anything, we will fully support the young activists. If we have to push through to do it, then we will all do that together,” a protester who looked in his forties, said. But he only gave his nickname out of fear of reprisals. 

After the letter was successfully delivered, the crowd began making its way back to the open field behind them. Parit urge the crowd to join the next planned protest on Thursday, Sept. 24.

“Come stand with us again!”