Beginning in July 2020, as Thailand’s lockdown measures were easing, young people began taking to the streets nationwide in thousands, then tens of thousands to protest their country’s chronic democratic deficit. Initially they demanded the resignation of former coup leader Prayuth Chan-ocha’s government and the writing of a new constitution. But within a few weeks they were shattering taboos and making history by taking on the previously unassailable (and legally protected) institution of the monarchy and Thailand’s absentee, Germany-based King Maha Vajiralongkorn. They were questioning everything, from the king’s lavish taxpayer-funded budgets to the forced disappearances and murders of anti-monarchist Thais living in exile. With most of the world focused on the COVID-19 pandemic and the waning days of the Trump presidency, the FT’s Bangkok bureau chief John Reed, one of the paper’s most experienced foreign correspondents, and his Thai producer Ryn Jirenuwat, one of Thailand’s most skilled reporters, worked from July to get inside the movement, meet its leaders, understand their agenda, and begin bringing the story of what was happening in Thailand to the world. Working over four months, they interviewed student leaders in depth, attended several mass protests, turned to outside experts for analysis, and began crafting this feature, widely seen as the definitive story of 2020’s most surprising “People’s Power” movement and the young people who created it. The young Thai photographer, deeply embedded in the movement from the beginning, produced the striking photos that went with the story. The FT’s reporters, as they were crafting this feature, broke several news stories related to Thailand’s gowing political tumult, including growing controversy in Angela Merkel’s government over Vajiralongkorn’s residence in Germany and anger among opposition Thai MPs and activists about the king’s $40bn-plus personal wealth and the airline-sized fleet of 38 taxpayer-funded jets his family enjoys. This made the FT’s running coverage of what’s happening in Thailand a must-read in 2020, and a guidepost for world leaders, human rights defenders, and others in a year when international travel to the kingdom was impossible.
Thailand is a poorly understood country overseas, and even inside the kingdom self-censorship by media and public figures, and fear of laws like Article 112 (lese majeste) mean that much of what’s happening here does not get reported or recorded for the historical record clearly or forthrightly. Reed and Jirenuwat’s FT Weekend magazine cover story was the first in any outlet – foreign or Thai – to portray the kingdom’s new democracy movement accurately, sympathetically (but critically) and in depth for an international and Thai readership. It is now seen as this year’s definitive first-draft-of-history text on the movement, its origins, and goals. Lawmakers, human rights defenders, and rival media in Germany, the US, and other Asian countries have since this story pubished turned to it and the FT’s running news coverage for a clear explanation and analysis of what the student leaders want, how they are organising themselves, how the movement fits into Thai history, and what might happen next. The story also was also sharp-eyed enough to point out for the first time a fact sitting in plain sight: nearly all of Thailand’s protest leaders are LGBT and/ or female. Our feature was one of the FT Weekend’s most read items on the day it was published, and our running news coverage of the protests has been extraordinarily well-read, according to the FT’s internal reader diagnostics. But Reed and Jirenuwat’s main service has been – much like the student leaders – in breaking taboos on addressing controversial and legally perilous topics head-on and without fear. When most other media outlets (especially broadcasters) were watching their words for fear of legal repercussions, our reporters bravely and frankly addressed criticism relating to the man at the top of Thailand’s undemocratic system: the billionaire King Maha Vajiralongkorn. Other international media – and some Thai outlets too – followed our lead, with lesser or greater courage. With Thai authorities now piling lese-majeste charges onto protest participants, it’s worth noting that Reed and Jirenuwat could still face future personal repercussions from the regime for their work.