BANGKOK, Thailand -- Thailand's 68-year-old king and his loyal, testy
prime minister suffered a dangerous 2020, relentlessly exposed to
loud, satirical, young revolutionaries in the streets demanding
democracy and limits to the monarch's wealth and security forces.

"Maha" or "Great" King Vajiralongkorn and Prime Minister Prayuth
Chan-ocha now face a harsh January but are expected to emerge secure.

"Prayuth does not seem to be in danger. The royal-military alliance
seems to be unassailable," said Michael Nelson of the Asian Governance

The foundation focuses on law, academia and other sectors in Asia. Its
advisors include former commanding general of the U.S. Marine Corps in
the Pacific, Lt. Gen. Wallace C. Gregson.

"The protesters, though big on Facebook, also have little backing in
the population. And now, the government is getting tough with them,"
Mr. Nelson said in an interview.

Prime Minister Prayuth seized power in a bloodless 2014 coup when he
was a general and army commander-in-chief.

Today, he is dependent on royalists, industrialists, the U.S.-trained
military, and an urban-based upper and middle class.

The king and prime minister however are challenged by tens of
thousands of protesters who swarmed Bangkok's streets during the past
six months.

They promise to return after the New Year holidays.

Their three demands remain: topple Mr. Prayuth's government, replace
Thailand's 20th constitution with a new charter, and "reform" the

Mr. Prayuth’s administration was hailed for medical successes during
COVID-19's first year as an international virus.

The death toll was limited to 60 people in this Southeast Asian nation
of 70 million, but recently climbed to at least 67 dead.

As a result, Thailand's devastated massive tourism industry, and
downturn in some of its export markets, show no signs of quickly

During 2021, anger against Mr. Prayuth may swell from people suffering
in the ravaged economy.

"Another way to say it is the students may not have won much, but the
government continues its string of losses," David Streckfuss, author
of "Truth on Trial in Thailand," said in an interview.

"Thailand is in a legitimacy crisis, an identity crisis, of
unprecedented proportions," facing a new generation "that is smart,
flexible and quick, and that proposes a very new, modern view of Thai
society that celebrates difference, whether in political thought,
gender diversity, ethnicity, etcetera," Mr. Streckfuss said.

Most of the demonstrations, led by university students and school
children, have been festive with live music, speeches, political
souvenirs and curbside food carts churning out cheap food.

But at some confrontations, security forces blasted them with
truck-mounted, chemically-irritating water. Protesters occasionally
smashed police barricades.

The latest boisterous street confrontations included flamboyant,
fleshy, fashion-disaster students prancing in public, mimicking the
expensive clothing and snobby entitlement of royalists and other

Dozens of protesters now face up to 15 years in jail for their camp
gestures, costumes, and especially their often caustic accusations
which royalists perceived as insults against the monarchy.

The Criminal Code's Article 112 lese majeste law punishes anyone who
defames, insults or threatens the king, queen, heir-apparent or

The constitution also states: "The King shall be enthroned in a
position of revered worship and shall not be violated. No person shall
expose the King to any sort of accusation or action."

Arrests, charges and threats of imprisonment may have dampened some
dissent, but galvanized others to rebel.

As a result of litigious government assaults on dissent, lawyers are
deeply involved on both sides.

Some royalists appear to exploit legal loopholes to muzzle the
youngsters' defiance.

Protesters receive lawyers' pro bono leadership and support.

But their rebellious movement suffers internal splits.

A previously hailed Youth Forum group recently signaled its interest
in communism, and published a logo similar to a hammer and sickle --
sparking complaints by other protesters.

Protesters' volunteer guards meanwhile began fighting among themselves
in the street and aggressively grappled with police and their
barricades -- defying demonstrators' claims to be peaceful.

Great King Vajiralongkorn, one of the world's wealthiest monarchs, is
expected to maintain his position of strength during 2021 while trying
to adapt to an increasingly international public spotlight.

Protesters want to unlink the palace's recent control over two army
infantry regiments, and stop paying taxes which feed some of the
monarchy's ceremonies and activities.

They want the constitutional monarchy to revert to a more limited
structure and role similar to the earliest years under Great King
Vajiralongkorn's late father, King Bhumibol Adulyadej who died in

They also want to delete the constitution's amended Crown Property Act
of 2017, which gave the king control of royal assets worth billions of

Royalists say many those assets originally belonged to Thailand's
earlier kings and were subsequently inherited.

Bangkok's fast-moving treacherous politics also hit the American
Embassy and Congress.

The embassy strenuously rejected royalists' recent claims that current
and recent American ambassadors secretly manipulated Thai dissidents,
stoked pro-democracy protests, and supported subversive online

U.S. Senator Tammy Duckworth [Democrat-Illinois] and eight other
Democratic party senators said in a joint resolution on Dec. 3,
"violence and repression by the country’s monarchy and government,"
were used against protesters.

"U.S. Senator Tammy Duckworth went from hero to villain," said Voranai Vanijaka.

Ms. Duckworth, who lost her legs during the U.S.-Iraq wars, was
singled out by Thais because her mother was Thai.

"Thailand’s former model and actress Janjira Jujang called Senator
Duckworth a 'double handicap person,' insulting her brain and her
amputated legs," Mr. Voranai reported in the Bangkok-based Thisrupt
news site he founded.

"Some senators" received "inaccurate information" about the protests,
said Thailand's government spokesman Anucha Burapachaisri.

“Their concerns are not shared by the rest of the U.S. Congress.

"The protesters have also been breaking the law with the intention to
abolish the royal institution,” Mr. Anucha said.

The U.S. supported Thailand's dictators, elected prime ministers, and
monarchy ever since World War II, including Bangkok's 13 coups.

During 2020, relations sweetened with President Trump who embraced
Prime Minister Prayuth in the Oval Office in 2017.

If President-elect Biden's administration emphasizes Thailand's lack
of human rights, Bangkok's politicians might squirm.

Thailand's army, navy and air force however expect U.S. weapons sales,
training, and public statements boosting the Thai military will
continue under Mr. Biden.

Much of Washington's focus on Bangkok concerns a perceived rivalry
between the U.S. and China for Thailand favors.


Richard S. Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based American foreign correspondent
reporting from Asia since 1978. Excerpts from his new nonfiction book,
"Rituals. Killers. Wars. & Sex. -- Tibet, India, Nepal, Laos, Vietnam,
Afghanistan, Sri Lanka & New York" are available at