Pavin Chachavalpongpun has a photo on his phone of two Thai students prostrating themselves in front of an image in a gilt frame. It’s the kind that hangs in the lobbies of government buildings and offices, bearing the portrait of the king, Rama X. But instead of Rama X, the frame shows Chachavalpongpun holding his chihuahua.

In a country where reverence of the monarchy is mandatory, and even the mildest of criticism of the royal family is punishable by years in jail, the students’ act — replacing the king’s image with one of Thailand’s most prominent anti-monarchists — is incredibly dangerous.

“I would never imagine that in 2020, people would dare to do this,” Chachavalpongpun says, in an interview in his Kyoto office. “I never asked them to do this. Never. I don’t know where this idea comes from.”

Dai Kurokawa/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Since early July, protesters have returned to Thailand’s streets, after demonstrations that began in February were cut off by the novel coronavirus. The new wave of dissent began on university campuses and eventually drew thousands of young people across the country. What started as a protest against the military-backed government’s attempts to restrict individual freedoms under the guise of controlling the Covid-19 pandemic has evolved into something more profound. Protesters began to publicly flirt with more provocative ideas — including reforming the monarchy’s role in public life. 

As the protestors’ demands have become bolder, Chachavalpongpun, a 49-year-old politics professor, has become an unlikely symbol of dissent. A puckish figure with a coiffed mane of blonde-streaked hair and a scandalous laugh, Chachavalpongpun is a serial irritant to the Thai government. He has not been able to return to Thailand since 2014, when he was summoned by the military for questioning over his anti-monarchy views, but responded with an offer to send his dog in his stead. His passport was revoked while he was still in Kyoto, so he remained in Japan as an exile.

From his Kyoto home, he lip-syncs on TikTok to royalist songs and speeches with theatrical camp. Royalist Marketplace, his satirical Facebook page, had more than a million subscribers before the Thai government blocked access to it from Thailand in late August. His picture has appeared at protests across Thailand — Pavin in Speedos, Pavin dressed as a princess, Pavin in short-shorts and a crop top. At one protest, he was “crowned queen,” with another exiled anti-royalist as king.

For a protest movement that was born online, and whose iconography evolved as it crossed from the streets to social media and back again, Pavin has become a kind of fictional character, a living meme. He appears alongside other unexpected symbols — Harry Potter, anime hamsters, the “Hunger Games” — as protesters co-opt pop culture and comedy, turning them into weapons against a government that has met dissent with arrests and intimidation. 

“It’s such a brilliant way to kill reverence,” Chachavalpongpun says. “When something is revered too much, sometimes it doesn’t work to talk back seriously.”

In July, protesters returned to the streets after a three-month hiatus. In April, Thailand had locked itself down to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus. In theory, the curfews remain in place, after the government extended the lockdown in July, even though more than a month had passed without a case of community transmission. Student leaders cried foul, accusing the authorities of using the pandemic as an excuse to stifle free expression. 

That would not have been out of character for a government that has tried hard to muzzle dissent since coming to power in a military coup in 2014. After declaring martial law and installing himself as head of an interim administration, General Prayut Chan-o-cha, the coup leader, pushed through changes to the constitution that gave the military enormous influence over civilian politics. In the 2019 election, he ran as a civilian candidate. Although his party did not win the most seats in Parliament, the constitutional changes meant that he was installed as prime minister anyway. 

To smooth its transition from military to civilian government ahead of the election, the junta tried to shut down critical voices, starting with mainstream TV, radio, and print outlets. 

Supalak Ganjanakhundee, now a visiting fellow in Thai studies at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore, was the editor-in-chief of the Nation, a Bangkok-based daily paper, during the 2014 coup. He remembers troops taking up station in the newsroom. 

Once critical outlets were brought into line, mainstream discourse became more cautious and conservative. “Previously the political space was mostly in the mainstream media,” Ganjanakhundee says. “But [now] the mainstream media mostly takes the side of the government.” 

With the mainstream media muted, political discussion moved online. Twitter in particular became a forum for debate, albeit principally among young, urban Thais. This political awakening intersected with social media fandoms, particularly those that had sprung up around Korean pop and TV dramas, which have been wildly popular in Thailand since the late 2000s.

Online, young people began using references to Korean soap operas to make oblique comments about the monarchy and the government, swearing allegiance to television characters with language normally reserved for swearing fealty to the crown, says Janjira Sombatpoonsiri, assistant professor of political science in Thammasat University in Bangkok. Other pop culture symbols were more directly subsumed into the protests. A three-finger salute, taken from the 2012 dystopian movie the “Hunger Games,” was quickly adopted as a symbol of dissent by high school and university students.

Harnessing pop culture in this way helps students carve out a space in Thailand’s shrinking civic sphere, Sombatpoonsiri says. “It allows students to do things that are not allowed legally.”

These fandoms, complete with their own internal lexicons and signifiers of value, merged with “hashtag activism,” which had mobilized social media users around political issues. Some were blunt — #RIPThailand — while others were satirical and self-referential. Some activists used the term “colorful desserts” to talk about conservative Thais who have often used colored shirts to display their political leanings.

Alert to the danger of this rising dissent online, the military government has used legal processes to imprison and intimidate opponents online. Chan-o-cha warned in a 2019 speech that “social media is more powerful than the armed forces’ weapons.” The government has leaned heavily on a lèse-majesté law, which prohibits criticism of the royal family. In the three years following the coup, nearly 300 people were investigated for insulting the monarchy; some of those charged received long sentences. In 2017, one man, Wichai Thepwong, was handed a 70-year sentence for “defamatory” posts on Facebook, although this was later halved after he confessed to the charges. Others were charged with sedition, or with “Computer Crimes,” under a law that was updated in 2017 to criminalize “fake news.” Dozens of people were charged or threatened with arrest, often for sharing or liking posts on social media.

This pressure mostly failed to shut down the conversation online, however, and as the 2019 election approached, these online fandoms and movements coalesced around a new political party called Future Forward, headed by the young, charismatic millionaire Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit. 

The party won more than 80 of the 500 available seats, setting it up as a genuine force in Thai politics and a real opposition to Chan-o-cha. But the odds made it hard to continue. The party faced dozens of legal challenges, many of them spurious — including one from a private citizen, Nathaporn Toprayoon, that accused it of being an arm of the “Illuminati.” One stuck: in February 2020, the Constitutional Court disbanded the party over a campaign finance violation, a move decried as politically motivated by human rights groups. Juangroongruangkit was barred from politics for a decade. The party’s dissolution sparked some of the largest protests in recent history, which were curtailed by the Covid-19 lockdowns.

With the streets clear, dissent once again raged online. One of the largest forums was Chachavalpongpun’s Royalist Marketplace, which he set up as a joke in April, but which quickly became a clearinghouse for potentially seditious commentary. By August, it had become an almost full-time job, as he had to manually approve thousands of posts per day. In it, people publicly questioned why the king had left the country during the pandemic to stay in his other home in Bavaria, why he has his own private army, and whether he supports the abduction of dissidents.

The popularity of Royalist Marketplace, and its content, was a sign that what was brewing online was more extreme in its messaging than previous protests.

“I think, in lockdown, people learned a lot from social media,” says Netiwit Chotiphatphaisal, a prominent student activist who is campaigning for the dissolution of Parliament. The anger from the destruction of the Future Forward Party festered. On top of that, Covid-19 has gutted Thailand’s tourism-dependent economy, and young people are watching their futures slip away from them, he says. In the process, their fear of authorities has dissipated.

“Finally, people can’t tolerate the government,” Chotiphatphaisal says. “Everything seems to be collapsing. People don’t believe in the rule of law anymore, so they have the courage to go to the street.”

Post-lockdown, the protests have been angrier but also more consciously absurd. In late July, students marched with stuffed toys of the Japanese cartoon character Hamtaro, whose fat body and stuffed cheeks had come to represent official corruption. As they went, they sang a modified version of the TV show’s theme tune, calling for the dissolution of parliament, with the refrain “the most delicious food is taxpayers’ money.” 

In August, around 200 people dressed as wizards demanded reforms to the monarchy, in a protest billed on Facebook as “Harry Potter versus You-Know-Who or He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named,” a reference to the lèse-majesté laws that protect the king. 

Some of the memes that have emerged on the streets are, like a lot of internet humor, self-referential and profane, and sometimes almost impenetrable for outsiders.

One sign at a July protest read, in Thai, “I wish Pavin had a cunt so I could be born from it.” That, Chachavalpongpun explains, started out as a pro-monarchy slogan displayed on stickers as a sign of loyalty to the crown: “I was born in the reign of Rama IX,” referring to the previous king, who died in 2016. Satirical versions soon appeared: “I was born in Bangkok,” “I was born in hospital.” Later iterations were ever more profane — “I was born from a vagina” — used as a way to indirectly insult the royalists.

“People might think it’s trivial, that it’s too silly,” Chachavalpongpun says. “But there’s a double meaning there.”

Even though he says he never intended to become a symbol of protest, Chachavalpongpun has embraced his role as a provocateur. He takes great glee in TikTok. The first video he made used a leaked telephone call between the crown prince — now king Rama X — and his then wife. “It’s very saucy,” Chachavalpongpun says. “They’re bitching at each other. The wife has found out that the crown prince has a new woman, and she’s saying ‘I hate you, how can you do this?’” Within an hour, someone had reported him, and his account had been blocked.

Given its content, and the pressure that the Thai government has been putting on social media platforms, it is surprising that Royalist Marketplace lasted as long as it did. In mid-August, Minister of Digital Economy and Society Buddhipongse Punnakanta had threatened Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube with fines if they failed to remove content that broke local laws by insulting the monarchy. Eventually, Facebook did so. 

In the evening of August 24, Chachavalpongpun got a call from a friend at Facebook, warning him that, in a few hours, the company was going to take his page down.

“I had a few hours to inform my members that this is coming. We have no choice but to accept it,” he says. “So I immediately started a new group and told them that this is a mass exodus. Everyone pack your bags and move to the new house.”

The next morning, Facebook said that it would sue the Thai government for forcing them to remove the page. Less than three days after it was created, the new Royalist Marketplace had 800,000 members.

“If they block it, I’ll open it again.”

The government has said that Facebook is infringing the “cyber-sovereignty” of Thailand and suggested that it will try to have the second Royalist Marketplace removed as well. 

“If they block it, I’ll open it again,” Chachavalpongpun says. “I have a lot of time. I work from home.”

Although he is thousands of kilometers from Bangkok, there is still a risk attached to being a prominent critic of the government and the king. Last July, someone broke into his apartment in Kyoto in the middle of the night and sprayed Chachavalpongpun and his partner with a powerful irritant that burned for days. The Japanese police have yet to formally identify the intruder.

Since starting Royalist Marketplace, he has faced death threats. In June, his friend and fellow satirist Wanchalearm Satsaksit, who had been charged in absentia for lèse-majesté and for criticizing Chan-o-cha in a Facebook post, was abducted off the street in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh. He has not been heard from since.

On the streets in Bangkok, the risks of a more aggressive crackdown are rising too. By openly discussing royal reform, the protesters have broken a taboo that has, in the past, been punished by violence. Activists, including Chotiphatphaisal, told Rest of World that they are braced for it, as an increasingly insecure government lashes out. 

“This is a new generation of people who want to be set free from the restrictions of talking about the monarchy. They have been encouraged by the protests on the street,” Chachavalpongpun says. Recently, a group of students approached Chachavalpongpun to ask whether now was the moment to finally agitate for royal reform. “They asked, ‘Do you think this is the right time?’ I said, ‘Is there ever the right time?’” he says. “It’s very dangerous. But it’s a turning point in Thai politics.”