Conflicts & War

The student who dared to challenge Thailand’s monarchy

Bangkok, Sep 30 (efe-epa).- When Panusaya “Rung” Sithijirawattanakul, a 22-year-old university student, in August read a 10-point manifesto to reform the monarchy before thousands of protesters, she left Thailand in a state of shock.

Never before in the recent history of the country has anyone dared to directly challenge the mighty royal house in public in this way.

Rung is one of the most visible faces of the student movement that began in February and since July has flooded the streets of Bangkok to demand democratic reforms and a review of the role of monarchy, a taboo subject in Thailand.

“I am well aware of the consequences I’m facing, but it’s something I have to do,” says the third-year sociology student in an interview with EFE.

On Sep. 20, she did it again and went even further. After a massive protest in front of the Grand Palace in Bangkok, she was in charge of crossing the police cordon to deliver to the chief of police a letter addressed directly to the king.

The letter once again insisted on limiting the powers of the monarchy, submitting to greater constitutional controls and ending the lese majeste law that punishes anyone who criticizes the royal family with up to 15 years in prison.

In her room on the Rangsit campus of Thammasat University, dolls from the movie “Minions” and Hello Kitty sheets contrast against the portrait of the Thai dissident in exile in Japan, Pavin Chachavalpongpun.

“I think the political system in Thailand is not stable, and the reason why it is not stable is because it has always been intervened by the most powerful person in the country,” she says despite being well aware that her criticism of the monarchy could lead her to jail.

Rung, who says the student movement is not linked to any political party, faces an arrest warrant for organizing one of the protests, and charges, including sedition.

Question: What do you think is the most important thing you have achieved in these last three months of protests?

Answer: What we have achieved so far is to launch a public debate on the royal institution, not only in public places, but also in parliament. We can also see some academic seminars or conferences, some were organized by parliamentary committees, that discuss mainly the royal institution… and I can say that addressing the royal institution seems wide open now.

Q: Why do you think this debate is happening now and not during the time of King Bhumibol Adulyadej (who died in 2016)?

A: It’s impossible because he gained a lot of popularity, and I think we probably couldn’t say anything against him… the popularity between the two kings is different.

Q: How far do you think these protests will go?

A: I believe that in the end we will achieve reform of the monarchy. I don’t know when, maybe in the next two or three years, nobody knows. I didn’t expect to see people address this issue as openly as this. This time I feel that the stream is flowing very well, and the monarchy’s reform may happen in the next one or two years, or five years, but it will certainly happen.

Q: Pro-democracy protests have often ended violently in this country. Are you worried about this happening again?

A: If we look at history, I could say that violence is inevitable. However, there was no violence during the last protests. It’s a positive thing for both us and the government. As for our side, attendees can trust the leaders that they won’t risk their life. For the government’s side, it can prove that the royal institution was fair enough to listen to us.

Q: You have become the most visible face of the students’ challenge to the monarchy. Are you afraid of the consequences?

A: I am aware of all the consequences that I might face… but it’s something that I don’t have to be afraid of. This issue should have been addressed in Thai society a long time ago. If I don’t speak at this time, Thai politics won’t make any progress and circle around. And that’s why we must fix the core of the problems, which is the royal institution.

I see myself ending with death. I’m not afraid of anything. If I go to jail, one day I will get out. I didn’t do anything wrong, so why should I be scared?

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