Netiwit Chotiphatphaisal was in his first year at Thailand’s prestigious Chulalongkorn University when he made international headlines for refusing to kneel in front of a statue of the late King Rama V during an initiation ceremony – a mandatory pledge of respect for first-year students.
It was 2016, and Chotiphatphaisal’s act of defiance led to his dismissal as head of the student council. In Thailand the king serves as head of state, and the monarchy is traditionally revered. As such, there is a longstanding taboo on criticising the royal family, enforced by a powerful lèse-majesté law that carries a sentence of up to 15 years in prison for insulting members of the monarchy.
But this year the taboo has been broken. In recent months, tens of thousands of people have participated in anti-government protests across the country, growing increasingly bold in criticising the monarchy.
On Tuesday the clashes with police reached a newly violent peak, with some people reportedly treated for gunshot wounds, including at least two students. Protesters had gathered outside the Thai parliament, wearing their now-familiar uniform of hard hats and goggles, and, in some cases, carrying giant inflatable ducks they used for shelter when water cannons were fired.
The protests began last year as a reaction to the dissolution of Future Forward, a popular progressive party, and the appointment of the former military coup leader Prayut Chan-o-cha as prime minister after contested elections. They’ve since developed into a huge youth-led movement calling for key changes: a new constitution, Chan-o-cha’s removal, an end to the harassment of activists, the removal of harsh defamation laws protecting the royal family from criticism, and, significantly, reform of the monarchy to curb the king’s powers.
The movement has been a long time coming, says Chotiphatphaisal, now a 24-year-old student leader and one of Thailand’s most prominent young, anti-junta activists.
“Three years ago, I thought I was the most hated man in university. But now, a lot of young people became like [me]. We are agitated,” he said. “In Thailand, we have a very rigid culture. Young people have to follow older people, and civilians have to follow the military. This system has been repeated throughout history, but it’s not working. Young people feel hopeless: if they don’t do anything, they don’t have a future. And that’s made them have to fight.”
Thailand has a long history of political and social unrest. Yet never before have Thais overtly questioned the legitimacy of its monarchy, which traditionally functioned as a semi-divine authority and a key pillar of national identity.
Tensions escalated after the military seized power in a 2014 coup, and the highly unpopular King Maha Vajiralongkorn ascended to the throne in 2016 following the death of his beloved father. Vajiralongkorn – who spends most of his time living luxuriously in Germany – has since vastly consolidated his power through political, financial and military interventions. Critics say that some of these reforms, such as Vajiralongkorn granting himself personal control of army units and a palace fortune worth tens of billions of dollars, are pushing the nation towards a state of absolute monarchy.
On 1 November the king called the country the “land of compromise” in a rare interview with Channel 4 News and CNN at a royal function at the Grand Palace in Bangkok, where he greeted a crowd of loyal supporters. The military and business establishment – which heavily control Thai society – are strong backers of the monarch. Royalists have also held counterprotests in recent weeks, challenging anti-government protesters.
“The majority of Thai people never had to make the differentiation between the institution of monarchy and the [former king], who was universally admired,” said Michael Buehler, a senior lecturer in comparative politics at Soas, University of London. “It somewhat was inevitable to have this discussion after the new king came into power. That’s a very healthy thing.”
The debate over the monarchy is encouraging people to think critically about what it means to be a modern Thai citizen – and driving a wedge between generations, as well as between those who fall on opposite ends of the political spectrum.
When Pattara, 27, heard a speaker openly criticise the king during a flash mob in August in his hometown Chiang Mai, Thailand’s largest northern city, he felt scared. Yet the speaker’s comments resonated with Pattara, who grew up in a royalist family but has privately questioned the monarchy’s authority in recent years.
“Growing up, I respected the king and I never criticised the king. I was a victim of his propaganda. I started to change my opinion in high school,” Pattara said, adding that his views have been a source of conflict within his family. “I’m sure there are so many people who are not happy with the government right now, and not brave enough to speak out. So, I want to show that there are many people who share the same beliefs.”
It’s a sentiment expressed by many young people out on the streets. The protests are an unprecedented show of youth mobilisation on a scale not seen in decades, according to Punchada Sirivunnabood, an associate professor of politics at Mahidol University, Thailand.
Social media has encouraged many to become politically engaged and revolutionised methods of protest by allowing demonstrators to share tactics and learn from movements across the world, particularly in Hong Kong and Taiwan, Sirivunnabood said. Such developments have made it possible to plan leaderless rallies, send encrypted messages and coordinate spontaneous protests that appear and disappear in various locations. Such protests are difficult for the government to control, she added.
For many, the movement is not only a vehicle for reform but also a political awakening that has created possibilities for deeper reflection on Thai society: income inequality, education, gender equity, national identity and Thailand’s place in the international sphere.
It has pushed young Thais to consider the country’s many systemic challenges, and attempt to find – as well as fight for – solutions.
Jeanne, a 23-year-old recent graduate from Bangkok, went to her first ever protest in February. She has since been regularly taking part in such events, where she has been exposed to diverse social issues, often for the first time.
“We grew up in the midst of yellow shirt and red shirt protests, and those protests made us think that protesting was a very violent thing. That was the thinking of most of the younger generation before the  election,” said Jeanne, referring to the two politically divided camps that have driven protests in Thailand for years.
The red shirts are supporters of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who enacted populist policies that benefited the rural poor before he was deposed in a 2006 coup, while the yellow shirts are an anti-Thaksin group, largely made up of royalists and democrats supported by the urban middle class.
“One of the meaningful moments was when I saw the red shirts joining our protest. I’m from a pretty elitist family, and the red shirts have been painted as the villain for quite a long time,” Jeanne said. “[But] they’re not the bad guys, [they’re] just people who suffered. They need change. Now we understand that changes are indeed necessary.”