The 21-year-old police officer arrived in Bangkok just after midnight on Oct. 15 with clear instructions: Disperse all protesters gathered in front of the prime minister’s office, with force if necessary.
The young officer’s commander ordered the operation to start at 4:20 a.m., shortly after the Thai government issued an emergency decree aimed at quashing the demonstrations that had rocked Bangkok over the summer, challenging the once-untouchable monarchy. Protected by their shields, the police bore down on the young protesters, some officers kicking and punching as they went, before arresting more than a dozen leaders of the youth movement.
“The commander in charge of our operation was quite aggressive and I was worried about that. I thought our actions were very unnecessary,” said the officer, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of repercussions. “It made me feel ashamed of myself as a human being, and like I was a coward, betraying my principles.”
His views are shared by half a dozen officers interviewed by The Washington Post, reflecting a growing disaffection inside the Royal Thai Police with the three institutions that have long dominated politics in the kingdom: the army, the government and the monarchy. Since protests escalated this month, several police officers have been photographed raising the three-finger salute, a symbol of resistance and solidarity that the young demonstrators borrowed from the Hunger Games series.
On social media, stories have circulated of officers helping protect demonstrators from water cannons and allowing them to escape without arrest.
The predicament reflects a reality for many governments across the globe — including the United States, Hong Kong, Belarus and elsewhere — that have in recent months faced popular protests: Some of the police officers tasked with crushing the demonstrations would rather be on the other side.
In Thailand, where the police are perceived to have pro-democracy leanings and have frequently bumped up against the powerful army, open displays of support for the protesters by the police could add momentum to the movement, making it harder to crush and potentially further destabilize the embattled government.
“In the context of this army-led government, police brought in from the provinces especially would be sympathetic to the student protesters. They hate the government, and they don’t really like the king — this king in particular,” said Paul Chambers, a lecturer at Naresuan University’s Center of ASEAN Community Studies who has written extensively about the Thai security forces. “There are clear factions in the security forces, and even those who are supposed to keep down the demonstrations are not united in doing so.”
In response to questions from The Post, Col. Kritsana Pattanacharoen, a deputy spokesman for the police, said their operation against protesters is based on “international standards” and was lawful under the emergency decree. Police, he added, have the right to express their opinions but are government officials and must conduct their duties according to their internal rules.
Pressure to serve
Though he graduated easily from high school, the young officer who spoke to The Post didn’t go to university, instead opting to follow the path of his father and take the police examination. He was sworn in a year ago, but he never lost his love for history and continued reading about Thai politics, growing critical of the powerful monarchy.
Those sentiments had long been were impossible to express publicly until the student leaders of the anti-government rallies started openly calling for reform of the monarchy. Their declaration in August broke the taboo over the king, which for decades has been seen as an almost divine force, protected by some of the harshest lèse-majesté laws in the world carrying heavy penalties for any perceived insult to the institution.
Protesters are also calling for constitutional reform and for Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, who extended his term in a disputed election last year after taking power in a 2014 coup, to step down.
The emergency decree was issued Oct. 15, a day after protesters, in a particularly bold move, confronted a royal motorcade by raising the three-finger salute. Two Thai activists have since been arrested on charges of attempting to harm the queen, which could be punished by life in prison. Tens of thousands continued to protest, however, despite the emergency decree, which Prayuth withdrew on Thursday, citing an “easing” of the “severe situation.”
The officer said he broadly supports these protests, angered by the corruption he sees within the police force, the yawning economic inequalities in Thailand exacerbated by the pandemic, and the excesses of the monarch, who travels frequently on a private plane to Germany, where he lives in luxury. The assets of the Thai royal family are estimated at $40 billion.
“Since his coronation, Thai police have been pressured to serve the monarchy,” said the officer, describing training courses that stressed the monarchy’s value to Thailand with evocative pictures and videos. “But I never bought it — I’ve always questioned this particular version of Thai history presented by the authorities.”
Another 28-year-old officer, who similarly spoke on the condition of anonymity over the sensitivity of the issue, was on duty in northeastern Thailand during the Bangkok protests, providing security as the king and queen attended a local graduation ceremony. Some students refused to show up to the graduation in protest, he said.
“More than 70 percent of the police officers I know agree with the student demands,” the young officer said. “We want to see changes in Thai politics, because reform of the police will prevent corruption and improve our welfare.”
The shift in attitude toward the monarchy, analysts say, was not a surprise after the 2016 death of the revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej and the subsequent ascension of his son, the current King Vajiralongkorn, but its current form — where the very legitimacy of the institution is being challenged openly — is still a bit of a shock.
“Modern Thailand hasn’t seen anything like this before. It was obvious that the monarchy would change, and consequently there would be changes in Thai society,” said Matthew Wheeler, a senior Southeast Asia analyst at the International Crisis Group in Bangkok. “Here we are, witnessing that adjustment.”
A violent history
Bloody crackdowns and violent coups have long been synonymous with Thai politics, particularly during the rise of Thaksin Shinawatra, the country’s populist former prime minister who was ousted in a 2006 coup. He has continued to maintain huge popularity among the so-called “red shirts,” drawn from the more rural parts of the country and in opposition to the royalist “yellow shirts,” named for the color of the monarchy.
In 2010, the military was deployed against red shirt protesters camped out in Bangkok because the police were seen as more loyal to Thaksin and his camp. The operations resulted in at least 90 deaths.
“At that time, the police were called tomatoes, perceived by the military as being part of the red shirts,” said Surachart Bamrungsuk, a political scientist at Chulalongkorn University who researches the Thai army.
Those same police, however, and their suspect loyalties, have now become the main government instrument to repress the current round of protests.
Neither the officers nor analysts can gauge the future direction of the current political crisis, which has taken Thailand into unprecedented territory, both in terms of tactics used by the largely young, middle-class demonstrators and their focus on the king.
Though the emergency decree is no longer in force, protest leaders continue to be arrested, and demonstrators vow they will keep up the pressure, raising the possibility of security forces getting caught in between.
“If there’s a more forceful crackdown on the protesters, that will see more people in the police force and civil servants more broadly coming out to express their support for at least some of the protesters’ demands,” said Wheeler of the ICG.
“What we are seeing is so remarkable,” he added, “that it does have the feel of a critical juncture.”
The 21-year-old officer, meanwhile, continues to be stationed in Bangkok, on call if another mass demonstration erupts.
“Doing our duty as good officers doesn’t mean we should erase our past, our previous identity or our humanity,” he said.