In 1782, Nepal, under the regency of Rajendra Rajya Laxmi Devi, was pushing ahead with its expansion campaign started by the regent’s late father-in-law, Prithvi Narayan Shah. In the same year, King Thongduang (Rama I) initiated the Chakri dynasty rule in Siam (now Thailand).
Nepal threw out the 240-year-old Shah dynasty in 2008. But the Thai Chakri monarchy remains unharmed. Instead, the current monarch, Vajiralongkorn (Rama X), seems intent on tightening his hold. At his prodding, police are cracking down on Thai youths who have been taking to the streets asking for greater accountability from their profligate and promiscuous monarch. They would also like to see greater respect for democratic norms from Thai military.
The year 2001 was the Shah dynasty’s beginning of the end after a largely popular king and his family were gunned down in a royal massacre. He was replaced by a determined autocrat with no truck for democratic norms. Making matters worse, King Gyanendra and his spoilt son, Paras, were suspects in the killing of King Birendra’s family. People just didn’t trust the new monarch who had ascended the throne under such unpropitious omens.
Something similar happened in Thailand. In 2016 King Bhumibol’s (Rama IX’s) death brought Vajiralongkorn to the Thai throne. The former was widely revered, even deified. The latter is as widely loathed. It’s hard to love him too. The new king is a free-spending playboy who has been putting up in a luxury hotel in Germany—in the warm embrace of his 20 concubines—to escape Covid-19 in Thailand.
Thai youths had seen enough. They have been out on the streets for months, protesting against the unearned privileges of their king. But their grievances run deeper. The constitutional constraints on the monarchy and the military he controls were lifted following the army’s 2014 coup. Even before that the armed forces frequently removed popularly elected governments. The tipping point came in February this year when the progressive Future Forward Party, with 81 seats in the 500-member lower house, was banned on trumped-up charges.
Those accustomed to unearned privileges for long assume things will always be the same. But, then, a sudden tsunami sweeps everything away, as happened with Nepal’s Shah monarchy.
Today’s youths are supposedly lazy and complaisant, quick to pick a fight on social media but shy of any kind of direct political activism. Yet what we see is the opposite. The youths are right now at the forefront of political protests, everywhere from the US to Thailand to Nepal. They want greater democratic freedoms, an end to old unearned privileges, and less racial and economic inequality. It would be foolish to take them lightly.
Who would have thought the Shah monarchy, with its considerable public support and long legacy, could be pushed aside so easily? The protesting Thai youths may not get all they want this time; the monarchy-backed Thai junta is way too powerful right now. But the king’s blatant disregard of popular sentiments and the junta’s ham-fisted crackdown tactics suggest the days of the old Thai establishment are numbered too. The Chakri dynasty has survived for longer than the Shah dynasty. But not by much.