Thailand’s “Bad Students” pro-democracy group took over a downtown Bangkok intersection Saturday night, deriding the country’s royalist government as “dinosaurs” as a kingdom bitterly divided by age, politics and attitudes toward the monarchy lurches deeper into crisis.
Inflatable meteors proclaiming the end of the “dinosaur age” bounced across the rally of thousands as protesters in oversized T-Rex suits danced to anti-government rap songs, organized by a group of high school pupils tired of an education system that elevates rote learning and obedience to Thailand’s strict hierarchy over critical thinking.
“The dinosaurs are these government officials who have decision-making power over our lives,” Pimchanok Nongnual, 19, told VOA.
“They are stuck in tradition. They’re conservative, old-fashioned and refuse to change. Their time is up, they must go and open the way to other people who are more competent,” Nongnual said.
Thailand, a kingdom with 13 coups in less than a century, has hit another dead end, six years after the last coup, which its leaders said was meant to end political divisions for good and restore economic growth.
In the last few days alone, though, rival groups of protesters have clashed on the streets and police summoned for questioning pro-democracy protesters as young as 15, while there are no signs of compromise by the royalist establishment, which instead is threatening tougher use of the law, especially against any criticism of the monarchy.
The pro-democracy movement wants the former army chief turned elected premier Prayuth Chan-ocha and his government to step down, a new constitution to replace the current one written by the military, and crucial reform of the once unassailable monarchy.
After months of peaceful protests, which lean heavily on satire and ridicule of the elderly hectoring generals and arch-royalists who stack the parliament, the pro-democracy movement is becoming increasingly frustrated with the intransigence of the government.
Clashes with royalist “yellow shirts” last week saw the first wounds by gunshots—in a country flooded with weapons and a history of deadly street politics—while police have used water cannon and tears gas against protesters shielding themselves with giant inflatable rubber ducks.
The rubber duck has become the latest symbol of a relentlessly meme-making protest movement and was worn Saturday in hair pins and key chains.
Protesters plan a rally on Wednesday to the Crown Property Bureau, the office in charge of much of the multibillion-dollar fortune of King Maha Vajiralongkorn, the world’s richest monarch.
On Friday ex-army chief Prayuth, the subject of much of the protesters’ scorn, issued a warning that “all laws” will be enforced—potentially including Thailand’s strict lèse-majesté law, which allows for imprisonment for up to 15 years for defamation of or insulting members of the royal family.
“It’s not right ... I can’t tolerate this,” he told reporters, accusing the pro-democracy group of “creating chaos and violating the monarchy institution.”
The protest movement has smashed through taboos, however, by openly criticizing the monarchy for lavishly spending Thai tax revenues while signing off on the army’s role in politics.
There was little fear on the streets on Saturday.
“What is there to be scared of?” asked high school student Amy, 15, giving one name only. “The government has ruined our future already.”
Vajiralongkorn has been under pressure as never before since ascending the throne in 2016. He has returned from his preferred home in Germany to conduct an unprecedented public relations campaign showing a softer side to a monarchy that protesters say is out of touch and uncaring, going on near-daily walkabouts among royalist supporters.
The pro-democracy camp, though, accuses him of a one-sided approach to his subjects.
They have called from him to remain bound by the constitution, to open palace books for scrutiny and scrap the lèse-majesté” law, while decoupling from an establishment led by army generals and business clans who the protesters say have turned Thailand into a winner-takes-all society.
With neither the protesters nor the government appearing ready to give ground, some experts fear a descent into violence sooner or later. Scores have died on Bangkok’s streets in political violence over the last 15 years.
“It does seem that events are leading toward confrontation,” said Matt Wheeler, International Crisis Group senior Southeast Asia analyst.
The government may be under pressure from its core royalist constituency “to act decisively to put an end to criticism of the monarchy, which is growing bolder,” he said.
“But it is hard to see what measures they could employ that could both quash this burgeoning criticism and also avoid a backlash.”
Others see a December 2 constitutional court date for Prayuth—over a minor infringement of staying in an army residence after he retired from the military—as a potential face-saving escape route for the establishment to remove an unpopular premier through legal means rather than in response to the protesters on the streets.
“This could be seen as a gesture of compromise so to speak,” Khemthong Tonsakulrungruang, constitutional law scholar at Chulalongkorn University, said.
“But would it quell the movement on the streets? That’s another story,” he said.
Protesters have called for a seven-day rally from Wednesday until December 2.