In July and August, as Thailand was emerging from its COVID-19 lockdown, something extraordinary happened: Young people began to take to the streets in democracy protests, held nearly every day. Students and young people were confronting the kingdom’s military government, demanding ex-coup leader Prayuth Chan-ocha’s resignation, but also – for the first time in Thai history – questioning the legally unassailable role of the monarchy and the king. The FT’s reporter John Reed was on the story from the beginning, building contacts in student networks and interviewing their emerging leaders to try to understand, then explain, what was going on. This early, in-depth, and authoritative piece produced groundbreaking work on the personalities leading the movement and the demands they were making. These include a public accounting for the disappearances and murders of Thai anti-monarchist dissidents abroad, an abolition of Article 112, the punitive lese-majeste (royal insult) law, and the introduction of profound checks and balances on the power of the king. At a time when other media outlets, including well-known global outlets, were avoiding addressing the students’ criticism of the king, for fear of violating Thailand’s lese-majeste or other laws protecting the monarchy from alleged “insults”, Reed addressed the issue frankly and identified it correctly as the defining, history-making theme of the movement. Following this early piece, Thailand’s youth protests went on to become one of the world’s biggest foreign stories in 2020. This story was the first to present the movement and its origins, personalities, and demands clearly, in depth, accurately, and in balanced fashion. In focusing on the most important – and yet most sensitive – aspect of the movement, the call for royal reforms, Reed showed considerable personal braver, but also clarity of thought and journalistic leadership in introducing this important human rights story to the world.
At a time when the world (and FT readers included) were focused on the coronavirus pandemic, the Trump presidency, and other better-known topics, this story managed to break through the noise and capture global attention, becoming one of our newspaper’s most read pieces on publication day. Thailand is poorly understood overseas, and even inside the kingdom there was an initial fog of confusion about the importance and breadth of the new pro-democracy movement. The FT’s readers in governments, companies, and non-governmental bodies began sharing the story as a primer on what was happening in Thailand and who the principals were. But story’s biggest impact was in its author’s willingness to address the elephant room and point out – earlier than other media outlets – that the protesters were clearly confronting the monarchy and the king. Other foreign media, who were still self-censoring their reports on this topic in order to avoid breaking the law or jeapordising their media accreditation, began mincing fewer words and reporting in clearer fashion too. Even Thai media have now begun addressing this topic, rendering a service to Thailand’s 69m people who until now thought the royals’ privileged role was a topic forbidden for debate. With the world now watching, and foreign policymakers following our running coverage of the protests, Thailand’s government was compelled to show restraint against its participants. As 2020 progressed, Reed moved on to probe other, deeper – and even more controversial – topics in his coverage, including the king’s 2017 expropriation of the Crown Property Bureau’s $40bn-plus wealth portfolio, and his large taxpayer-funded budgets, including for an airline-sized fleet of 38 aircraft. Amid a growing regime crackdown on student leaders – dozens of whom now face lese-majeste charges and harsh prison terms – it’s worth noting that our reporter could potentially in future still face future repercussions from the Thai government, including legal prosecution, for his work.