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Published: December 16, 2013
BANGKOK — In a world now accustomed to democratic upheavals, including the Arab Spring and the Saffron and Orange Revolutions, the weeks of political upheaval in Thailand stand out for one main peculiarity. Protesters massing on the streets here are demanding less democracy, not more.
From their stage beneath the Democracy Monument, a Bangkok landmark, protesters cheer their campaign to replace Parliament with a “people’s council” in which members are selected from various professions rather than elected by voters.
The embattled prime minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, has proposed new elections as a solution to the turmoil. But that is just what the protesters do not want.
“I am one of the people who will not allow this election to take place,” Suthep Thaugsuban, the main protest leader, told a group of business executives in Bangkok on Thursday. Continued protests “might hurt businesses,” he said, “but just in the short term.”
In today’s fractured Thailand, a majority wants more democracy, but a minority, including many rich and powerful people, is petrified by the thought of it.
Because a number of the protest leaders are members of Thailand’s wealthiest families, some have described the demonstrations here as the antithesis of the Occupy Wall Street movement. This is the 1 percent rebelling against the 99 percent, they say.
The reality is more complicated — the protesters include rich and poor, Bangkok residents and many people from southern Thailand who feel disenfranchised by the current government and its northern power base. What unites the protesters is the desire to dismantle Ms. Yingluck’s Pheu Thai Party, which has won every election since 2001.
That Thailand is being convulsed by an anti democracy movement is somewhat surprising. The country was one of the earliest in Asia to adopt democracy, and both women and men were allowed to vote in local elections in 1897, more than two decades before the 19th Amendment in the United States banned voting rights discrimination on the basis of sex.
The antidemocracy protests, which have been some of the largest in Thai history, call into question the commonly held belief that a rising tide of wealth in a society will naturally be followed by greater demands for democracy. Thailand today is much richer than it was two decades ago, but it is also much more divided.
To outsiders, and many Thais, some of the protesters’ rhetoric seems to come from a different era.
“I can’t believe we are now arguing about suffrage. Is this 2013 or 1913?” wrote a Thai Twitter user who goes by the handle Kaewmala.
The antidemocratic ideas put forward by protest leaders are a jarring contrast with the image of Thailand as a cosmopolitan country open to the world.
At the Democracy Monument, in Bangkok’s historic district, tens of thousands of protesters gather nightly to speak of their skepticism of the notion of one person, one vote. A block over on Khao San Road, a street legendary with generations of Western travelers, backpackers watch English Premier League soccer, drink beer and enjoy $7 foot massages.
On the face of it, the crux of the protest appears to be a classic power struggle between a dominant majority and a minority frustrated by its losing streak in elections and its inability to influence national policies in a winner-takes-all, highly centralized system.
But Thailand’s crisis is multifaceted and tightly intertwined with the fact that King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the country’s 86-year-old monarch, who during more than six decades on the throne has been revered to the point of quasi-religious devotion, is ailing and that the country is bracing for his death.
A crucial component of protesters’ grievances is a feeling that the king and the monarchy have been undermined and threatened by the popularity of Ms. Yingluck’s elder brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, the former prime minister and patriarch of the Shinawatra clan, Thailand’s most powerful political family.
“This is a war between Thaksin and the king,” said a 64-year-old corn farmer from central Thailand who gave her name only as Muai and was among the thousands of protesters in the streets on Thursday. “Thaksin has been insulting the king for far too long.”
Mr. Thaksin has never publicly spoken ill of the king, but many of his supporters have been convicted by the authorities for lèse-majesté, a law that has been aggressively used in recent years to clamp down on dissent toward the monarchy.
Mr. Thaksin was removed in a 2006 military coup, an event that helped give him the aura of a martyr and allowed his supporters to overlook the controversial aspects of his rule, including numerous allegations of large-scale corruption and a war against drugs that left more than 2,800 people dead within three months.
Verapat Pariyawong, a Harvard-trained lawyer and commentator, says the powerful bureaucracy and courtiers around the king fear that new elites, symbolized by the rise of Mr. Thaksin, will replace them.
The Crown Property Bureau is by far the largest landowner in Bangkok and has controlling stakes in some of the biggest companies in the country. The managers of this fortune are among those “acting behind the scenes,” Mr. Verapat said.
More broadly, Somsak Jeamteerasakul, a leading Thai scholar on the monarchy, argues that Thailand’s protracted political turmoil has been exacerbated by the contrast between a deified king and politicians who appear crass and venal in contrast. “We have an image of monarchy that is flawlessly excellent in everything,” he said in 2010. “If we had not built this image in the first place, we would not have so many problems and complaints with politicians.”
Respect for the king, and the notion of his near-infallibility and beneficence, are deeply ingrained in Thais from the earliest years of schooling.
Some speakers at the protests in recent days have labeled the abandonment of the absolute monarchy in 1932 a mistake; protest leaders have called for the king to appoint a prime minister.
Anuchyd Sapanphong, a Thai soap opera star, recently posted on his Facebook page that he disliked corrupt politicians so much he wished he had been born during the time of the absolute monarchy.
“I don’t think we are suited for democracy right now,” he said on his page. “We don’t understand it that well — including me.”